Flower Power: The Grootbos Florilegium Project

WORDS Matthew McClure PHOTOS Gareth Williams/Grootbos

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve has long been known for luxury eco-tourism. Now it’s adding a bold, ambitious, pioneering new collection of botanical art to its portfolio.

The practice of botanical art dates back to the Romans, with the Codex Vindobonensis being the earliest example on record. Botanical paintings were used during the medieval period to document important medicinal plants, and over hundreds of years the expensive, time-consuming art of painting rare and unique plants transformed into a status symbol, with kings and nobles commissioning collections of painted or sketched specimens found growing in their private gardens. These collections are known as florilegia; among the most renowned are the Highgrove Florilegium in Gloucestershire in the UK, and the Transylvania Florilegium in Romania.

Sean Privett is the conservation director for the Grootbos Foundation and, along with resident botanical artist Chris Lochner and project leader Vicki Thomas, immersed each of the artists contributing to the new florilegium there in the diverse ecology of the local biome in preparation for their work. “I did a presentation for all of the artists, as a background story on Grootbos and the research and conservation we’re doing here. For many of them, it was quite mind-blowing,” Sean says, reminiscing about the start of the florilegium project back in 2019.

He and Chris prepared a “hit list” for the artists of the top 150 plants that they wanted included, which were chosen because of their relevance to the area and their special characteristics – or because they existed only there and nowhere else in the world. “We’re trying to tell the story of fynbos and the Cape Floristic Region, using Grootbos as an example,” says Sean.


Together with Sean and Chris, Vicki – a local resident and a renowned botanical artist – took the first group of artists into the field to select plants for the paintings that would form the basis of this exciting new collection. Vicki’s credentials speak for themselves: she co-founded the Botanical Society of South Africa and has had her work published in scientific journals, and her paintings can be found in collections around the world. The scope of this florilegium will include renowned botanical artists from all over the world, with painters Mieko Ishikawa of Japan and Maria Alice de Rezende of Brazil just two of those planning a trip to Grootbos to add their talent to the project.

The process of rendering fynbos specimens in pencil and paint is complicated. An artist can spend months (in some cases up to a year) with their specimen to understand the intricacies of its structure, function and relevance to the environment. While live cuttings are used as models, photography is also heavily relied on as a way of extending the life of each plant for painting. What’s more, some fynbos species are like ghosts: transient and ephemeral.

Aiming to preserve and document species of indigenous plant life that are being systematically erased from record through human activity, the Grootbos Florilegium is an ambitious and inspired story of firsts. Ground was also recently broken on construction of the Hannarie Wenhold Botanical Gallery, where the florilegium collection will be housed. The gallery will be the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and accessible to researchers and members of the public alike.

For more information, grootbos.com/en

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