Note #14 The Curated Nature

In many regions of the world, humanity is beyond the point where it can coexist with nature in a sustainable manner. The natural balances are shifting as we exploit nature in unimaginable ways. Already 60% of all mammals (including people) in the world are livestock. Less than 5% of the Overberg renosterveld (a particularly endangered Western Cape habitat type) remains, the rest has already been lost to agriculture. In 2019 alone, humans burnt an area of the Amazon rainforest that is equal to 10% of the total area of the Western Cape province. Imagine the entire province gone in 10 years…

In this complex landscape of interconnected issues related to loss and conservation, what part have plant societies such as the International Geraniaceae Group to play? What role do collectors have, navigating between offers of wild-collected plants on eBay, and their desire to grow beautiful plants? Why should we think deeply about the ethics of collecting when man evidently exploits nature in so many ways already?

From sustainable foraging…

Human exploitation of nature is as old as humanity itself. We collect wild plants for their utility value: for medicinal purposes, for construction, as an energy resource or as food. Pelargonium rapaceum and other tuberous hoareas have been used as a source of food in times of scarcity: foraging is a way of life (Fig. 1). Aesthetically pleasing and commercially important horticultural plants, including windowsill “geraniums”, can be traced to species that once had to be collected in the wild.

Fig. 1: Foraged plants for sale at a street market in Kokstad, Kwazulu Natal. Many of these would be admired at caudex plant fairs elsewhere in the world. However, here they represent a source of nutrition, and have done so for thousands of years. Plants have different values to different people in different contexts. 

Such foraging and collecting can be suitably regulated and managed, as is the case of commercial logging in many countries. As a source of energy, wood is preferred to fossil fuels if sourced sustainably, meaning that populations renew naturally and that the natural function of a forest is retained. Pelargonium sidoides offers an interesting example (Fig. 2). It is one of the centrepieces of the so-called bioprospecting industry, with estimated worth of ZAR 2 billion per year. Following concerns that collecting has become unsustainable, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) carried out a study to conclude that the species is not threatened, however, under South Africa-specific conservation criteria, the species was categorised as ‘declining’ [1]. Specific harvesting techniques and trade monitoring were recommended to keep the collecting practices sustainable.

Fig. 2: A flowering P. sidoides clinging to a degrading roadside, not just beautiful but also fulfilling the important function of protecting the topsoil from erosion.

…to a potential global collapse

Yellowstone, the first national park in the world, was established in 1872 following Ferdinand Hayden’s plea to the Congress, saying “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare”. We have come a long way from then and established various practices of curation of places of natural beauty, as the society places more value into plants preserved in their natural habitats than in their individual commercial value.

However, much as we admire our plants for their beauty, aesthetics is not the only reason for protection. We have only recently come to appreciate that biodiversity itself contributes to human wellbeing and value generation. This happens not just through direct commercial exploitation such as logging or ecotourism, but also through roots protecting topsoil erosion processes, through natural compounds being discovered that have medicinal uses, or through natural pollinators making sure that we have fruit on our tables. The commercial value of these services is vast and it has been recently calculated that 36% of the EUR 1.4 trillion in investments held by Dutch financial institutions, is highly or very highly dependent on one or more ecosystem services. As a recent report shows [2], the scale of what we lose if nature is not managed sustainably is only now becoming clear.

The risk to ecosystems in South Africa, home to most pelargoniums and many monsonias, is immense but measurable. 40% of its ecosystems are fragile, which places South Africa in the sad sixth place among the countries with most fragile ecosystems in the world, immediately behind Malta, Israel, Bahrain, Cyprus and Kazakhstan. It has zero % intact ecosystems while 40% of its economy depends on biodiversity and ecosystem services. For comparison, Finland depends on biodiversity and ecosystem services to the same extent, but it has 0% fragile ecosystems and 20% of its ecosystems are intact.

Legal protection of nature as well as horticulture

Imagine, therefore, the scale of economic collapse if nature is not better managed, both locally and remotely. Many Geraniaceae species enjoy protected status, but many are so little known that they do not, and even if they do, few recognise and protect them, e.g. against grazing by farm animals (Fig. 3). We recently read about the extremely rare Pelargonium connivens, for example, which often grows exposed to foraging livestock [3]. In order to protect these plants, we must not just develop a legal basis to do so, but also educate people: legislation is useless if we do not know what and how to protect.

Fig. 3: The rare Pelargonium sp. nov. aff. caroli-henrici from the Knersvlakte is very tasty to the grazing sheep. Thanks to Florent Grenier, a small population on a farm close to Bitterfontein has been protected by stones to make it more difficult for the sheep to graze them to the ground. 

Collecting plants from nature can be illegal, and it certainly is in protected areas. Even if collected legally, selling them internationally requires permits that are complicated to obtain due to various risks to agriculture, such as imported pests and diseases. Within the EU, the new plant passport rules apply to anyone wanting to sell plants, cuttings or seeds online or offline, and a plant inspector is required to visit before a passport is issued.

Horticultural societies, such as the International Geraniaceae Group are exempt from these regulations, as they distribute plant material for amateur use [4]. However, if we purchase a plant with a passport, it is our duty to retain the passport for up to a year to ensure that any disease outbreak is traceable. In these COVID times at least, when we have become aware of how quickly diseases spread globally, this is entirely meaningful and understandable.

Conservation regulations: unintended consequences

The downside of the increasingly complex rules is that they are difficult to navigate and may stifle the study of plants in nature, let alone in gardens and collections. Without research, it is not possible to justify the importance of what is essentially still unknown. Many botanists complain that even for the established practice of pressing plant material for herbaria, the amount of red tape has become overwhelming.

The situation could get ridiculous and there are cases to illustrate the point. There is one single remaining collection of plants of Pelargonium insularis, from the island of Samha in the Soqotra archipelago. The species is now extinct in nature, probably due to grazing, but international contracts legally prevent the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh to share the material and thus ensure its survival. When the International Geraniaceae Group contacted the Royal Botanical Garden for seeds with the aim to make them available to gardens and collectors worldwide, it was politely turned down. The mundane fact that the greenhouse boiler failed in 2018 [5] could have meant, therefore, that we lose forever – FOREVER – this species.

Plant societies, such as the International Geraniaceae Group, could be part of the solution here: by ensuring that Pelargonium insularis is successfully grown by the most knowledgeable pelargonium growers there are, we could help to ensure that perhaps one day, the species is reintroduced in the wild and that a broken boiler does not destroy an entire remaining population of it. We best keep plants by sharing them, the quote goes.

Fig. 4: Social media enabled a lucrative direct trade between local poachers and customers anywhere in the world. Here is how I was approached on Facebook by an unknown individual, having intentionally nudged the poacher to see how much knowledge they have. If I wanted, they could probably source almost any species. Such offers must be resisted at all costs, as supply will follow the demand. 

On the other hand, specialised collecting also creates its own supply and demand pressures, specifically when it comes to the rarest (and therefore often legally protected) species. Opportunity created the thief, goes another quote, and there are numerous examples of individuals poaching plants from nature for commercial purposes (Fig. 4). This practice is very different to Pelargonium sidoides discussed above, as often the choiciest species are targeted and over-collected to the point that entire populations are gone forever, as has happened with some Conophytum taxa in the past.

Fig. 5: A large box of poached plants, including pelargoniums and monsonoas, at the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester, after being seized by the police in 2019, already too weak to be potted on.

The sad fact here is that plants collected in nature are often difficult to establish as cultivated plants. If it comes to it at all, given that such illegal collections can be seized up by authorities and end up with organisations such as the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester, often after a lengthy legal process. Here they arrive all desiccated and beyond the point where they can be planted and grown on (Fig. 5). Even if they do survive, their value to science and conservation is lost as we no longer know where they were originally collected and planting back to nature is often not advisable due to possible spreads of pests.

The Wollemi pine project offers a good example where botanists and horticulturalists worked hand in hand to keep the original location of the desirable pine secret while making it available to gardeners and collectors. “Having Wollemi Pines in homes, gardens and parks worldwide is safeguarding the species from becoming extinct and minimises the threat of unauthorised visits to the wild population,” says the website [6]. For decades, plant societies have been making seeds widely available through seed exchange schemes with exactly this purpose.

Interventive practices of curation: rehabilitation and restoration

There are examples of how veld degradation and loss can be avoided, not just through establishment of protected areas such as National Parks. The regulations governing these can be too restrictive to allow for a meaningful coexistence of commercial activity supporting the livelihoods of local communities. A spectrum of solutions to this problem exist, at the other end of which are easements which enable farmers and NGOs to jointly manage a piece of natural land [7].

Fig. 6: An exclusion zone in the broader Steinkopf area provides respite from grazing to the small patch of veld protected within. A small population of Pelargonium angustipetalum can be found within, but not outside the zone. 

Once loss happened, veld restoration has been experimented with. Passive restoration or rehabilitation implies no human action, while active restoration involves deliberate activities to improve water retention, to provide shading using branches [8] or to replace topsoil with accumulated seed banks [9]. It has been shown that in the arid Namaqualand conditions, it takes 70 years or longer for a habitat to get restored if no grazing is allowed. Exclusion zones (Fig. 6) have also been experimented with. Although it takes very long, such experiments show that it is possible to restore biodiversity.

Fig. 7: In the Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve, in the area where Cyclopia pubescens was to be reintroduced, wetland had to be recreated by removing Australian eucalyptus, which is alien to South Africa and consumes large quantities of water. In the photo is Ellie Goossens, member of the International Geraniaceae Group and the driving force behind this restoration experiment. Photo: Rudi Goossens.

The Van Stadens Wildflower Reserve, about 40 km west of Port Elizabeth, offers an interesting example of successful, managed restoration. In 2015, a population of the rare Cyclopia pubescens was threatened by the development of a shopping mall in Port Elizabeth. The Friends of Van Stadens, a community organisation, in collaboration with the Reserve management decided to reintroduce the species into the Reserve, which now thrives in an area that was previously occupied by invasive, non-native eucalyptus trees (Figs. 7, 8).

Fig. 8: The seeds of Cyclopia pubescens, once sown, grew nicely and after the fire of 2019, the numbers of these critically endangered plants have tripled. According to SANBI, 80% of this species’ habitat has been transformed by urban expansion, agriculture and alien plant invasions and the remaining subpopulations are under threat of ongoing habitat loss to urban development, and degradation of habitat due to alien plant infestations [10]. Photo: Ellie Goossens.

Like paintings in a museum, we have come to manage, protect and restore nature. The humanity has significantly contributed to its decline and we use increasingly interventive techniques to preserve it. What happens when a species can no longer be found in the nature and only survives in our collections, like animals in a zoo, extinct in the nature? Can Pelargonium insularis suffer the same fate as the Tasmanian tiger?

The role of the International Geraniaceae Group

There are now probably more Pelargonium heterophyllum plants in cultivation than there are in the wild. We have slowly mastered the technique of its horticulture and the Group offers seeds through the Seed Scheme to anyone. The seeds are offered to botanical gardens for research and public engagement, so that more people learn about their exceptional uniqueness.

If available, we quickly propagate new taxa and make seeds available, like the Wollemi pine project, thus reducing the potential pressure on natural populations. The International Geraniaceae Group enthuses others to appreciate Geraniaceae.

A Reference Collection of Geraniaceae will be established – a shared resource consisting of a stock of plants shared between growers who can ensure their purity and who are able to produce seeds for anyone, for free: other growers, botanical gardens, or veld rehabilitation projects. For such a Collection to be useful as a research resource or even as a potential stock for restoration experiments, it needs to be ensured that they are not hybridised in cultivation, not even with plants of the same species and a different locality, as this would lead to a loss of genetic diversity.

The Reference Collection will be only a step further from the Seed Exchange programme. Both will enable anyone to do their bit for conservation: because conservation starts with each one of us.

By Matija Strlic, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


I am grateful to Ellie Goossens for having provided an interesting example of a veld restoration project featured in the article. I am also grateful to Florent Grenier and Odette Curtis for the many interesting discussions about conservation and for having taken joint trips to look at inspirational examples of conservation projects, from small to large. Nature is grateful to all of you.


  1. C. Morris: A ‘Homeland’s’ Harvest: Biotraffic and Biotrade in the Contemporary Ciskei Region of South Africa. J. South. Afr. Stud. 45 (2019) 597.
  2. SwissRe Institute: Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) – a business case for the re/insurance industry (2020).
  3. F. Grenier: Re-discovering Pelargonium connivens. The International Geraniaceae Group Spring Newsletter (2020) 13. Also available as Note #11.
  4. Plant Health Guide to Plant Passporting and Marketing Requirements. UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2005).
  5. A. Brown: Rescue mission to save century-old plant collection. BBC Scotland, 11 April 2018.
  6. Royal Botanic Garden Sydney: Why was the Wollemi Pine propagated for sale? (2020).
  7. Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust (2020).
  8. N. Visser, J.C. Botha, M.B. Hardy: Re-establishing vegetation on bare patches in the Nama Karoo. S. Afr. J. Arid Env. 57 (2004) 15.
  9. A.J. de Villiers, M.W. van Rooyen, G.K. Theron: The restoration of Strandveld and Succulent Karoo degraded by mining: an enumeration of topsoil seed banks. S. Afr. J. Botany 70 (2004) 717.
  10. D. Raimondo, A.P. Dold, W. Berrington. Cyclopia pubescens Eckl. & Zeyh. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2020.1.

Citation and Copyright

© The Author. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
ISSN 2464-014X.

This article was first published in Geraniaceae Group News #159. Cite as: M. Strlič: The Curated Nature. Geraniaceae Group News #159 (2020), pp 12-24.

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