The practitioner

Text Paolo Candotti Editing Elana Bregin Photographs Various

Vanda orchid from the Seychelles – Geoff’s Mom’s birthplace.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

A happy genius is the gift of nature: it depends on the influence of the stars, say the astrologers, on the organs of the body, say the naturalists; ’tis the particular gift of heaven, say the divines, both Christians and heathens. How to improve it, many books can teach us; how to obtain it, none; that nothing can be done without it all agree. 

John Dryden, ‘A Parallel of Poetry and Painting’

I arrive at Geoff and Lynne Nichols’ home, Lynwood on the South Coast, carrying a small packet which contains some delicate plant cuttings, including a newly discovered species of Kalanchoe. The cuttings are from Geoff’s long-time friend, ethnobotanist Prof Neil Crouch and are another addition to Geoff’s garden collection.

As I am guided through what at first strikes me as a somewhat wild garden, I immediately notice an outrageously beautiful orchid. “It’s a Vanda orchid from the Seychelles where my Mom was born,” says Geoff. A few steps further on he points out a Barbados Cherry (Malpighia punicifolia). “My Dad was born in Barbados,” he comments casually (Lynwood was also the name of the family home in Barbados). A little further on, I spot a delicate plectranthus with a soft purple flower. “That’s from Roddy Ward’s collection. And those plants over there are from Dorothea Craven – both she and Roddy donated their plant collections to Elsa Pooley and myself. Elsa didn’t have space or time so I ended up with all their treasured plants!” Geoff says.

Barbados Cherry (Malpighia punicifolia) – from Geoff’s Dad’s birthplace.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

I soon realise that I am walking through a botanical time-capsule, with every plant having a reason for being where it is and which, collectively, define not only Geoff’s career but his entire life history! Time-capsules are intrinsically shrouded in mystery, intrigue and surprise, and this garden proves to be no exception. Gradually, the functional, natural design logic becomes apparent as each botanical wonder and the micro-habitat it lives in is revealed.

We continue walking and Geoff points to a yellow ginger (Siphonochilus decorus) from Mozambique. “That’s from Richard Boon, and Trevor Coleman gave me that Mitriostigma axillare.” A few more steps: “That albizia across there is quite special, it’s an Albizia suluensis; Ian Garland gave me a sapling.” Pointing to a very delicate creeper with minute and intricate flowers, he says: “That’s Riocreuxia picta that David Styles found near Inanda Mountain. I wasn’t sure it would do well here but it’s looking good and flowering.” There are over 700 plant species in the garden and each has a story to tell. My thoughts are that ‘this interview could take a while!’

Plectranthus saccatus subsp. saccatus – from Roddy Ward’s collection.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Vanilla roscheri from Roddy Ward. 

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Siphonochilus decorus from Richard Boon.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Mitriostigma axillare from Trevor Coleman. 

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Riocreuxia picta from David Styles.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Geoff was born in Kenya, where his father was involved in Sisal research and later farmed coffee (yes, there are some coffee plants in the garden!), and he was encouraged from an early age to potter around with plants. Succulents were his favourite species as they provided the right forms needed to create mini-fortresses as defences from imaginary invaders!

When Geoff was eight the family relocated to South Africa, eventually moving to his current home in the late 1960s. On completing high school he enrolled for a Diploma in Agriculture at Cedara, which turned out to be a very happy time and where he felt at home with the subject matter. A compulsory stint of national service before Cedara during which the greatest benefit was that he learnt to type! After his National Service and before Cedara he worked for a while on a farm in the Rietvlei area between Greytown and Mooi River. Here he started what would be the first of many constructive and learning interactions with Zulu people, their traditions and beliefs; the knowledge gained was to become pivotal in his later career years, in ways he could not have imagined at the time.

Armed with his diploma he succeeded in impressing the then curator of the Botanical Gardens, Ernest Thorpe, who in turn convinced Tom Linley, the director of Parks at the then Durban Municipality, to employ Geoff as a ‘learner gardener’. He recalls with trepidation the non-negotiable target of 50 plant species that had to be learnt each week! What followed was an illustrious career of over 22 years, assisting the Parks Department to become a leading force in the protection of the biodiversity of Durban.

In the early 1970s the Durban Municipality (long before it became the sprawling eThekwini Metro) employed over 40 well-qualified horticulturists. The focus of the time was very much on the old colonial notion of beautification and the use of green spaces (parks) for the recreational use and benefit of the white residents of Durban, as dictated by the politics of the day. Geoff recalls the enthusiasm and team spirit in the department as they competed with each other to beautify the Berea and City Centre by lining it with hundreds of pot plants, which were changed on a weekly basis. These provided a continuous and stunning kaleidoscope of seasonal colour, mainly through the use of exotic species, some of which were declared in more recent times to be invasive species.

But the mandate of beautification was soon to be challenged as a dedicated group of horticulturists and natural scientists within the municipality became aware of the threat of invasive alien species and the realisation that biodiversity ‘trapped in isolated green islands’ would not survive in the long-term. The role of healthy biodiversity as a natural asset and its value in improving the quality of life for humans was gradually being acknowledged.

A Crowned Hornbill feeding on Deinbollia oblongifolia.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

This was a period of intense strategic planning and the first cautious steps of what was ultimately to become the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System, better known as D’MOSS, in 1989. Geoff was a key role player in a large interdisciplinary team of NGOs and municipal officials that later included Dr Debra Roberts, who collectively formulated the concept of interlinked green spaces, eventually accepted and integrated into the city’s planning system. Today the D’MOSS system, while not perfect, plays a critical role in protecting and enhancing the biodiversity of the city, through the creation/ protection of green corridors aimed at linking with larger green areas, thus allowing for the movement and sustainability of biodiversity.

A year’s sabbatical via a horticultural scholarship at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in 1979 to study the indigenous flora of Southern Africa provided Geoff with further understanding of the importance of our indigenous flora and the ravages caused by invasive alien species. Shortly thereafter, he started the first programmes to tackle the invasive species at Pigeon Valley and Burman Bush Nature Reserves as part of a process to protect our indigenous biodiversity.

In these formative years as a horticulturist Geoff soon learnt that plants were just one component of an entire ecosystem and his interest quickly expanded to all species, with a particular soft spot for birds – which have been a passion of his since his childhood days at Hoey’s Bridge in Kenya.

African Green Pigeon

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Of traditions, myths, mystery and muthi – Silverglen Medicinal Plant Nursery

Natal Ginger, Siphonochilus aethiopicus one of the most endangered medicinal plants in KwaZulu-Natal.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Arguably, Geoff’s most enduring legacy of his years at the municipality has been the establishment and success of Silverglen Medicinal Plant Nursery. The muthi trade has been in existence probably since the earliest humans inhabited planet Earth, but by the mid-1980s most botanists had become aware that in KwaZulu-Natal, what had been a sustainable and ecologically sound tradition was rapidly becoming a highly commercialised and plant-threatening industry. The expanding population and consequent increase in demand was resulting in the abandonment of traditional sustainable harvesting methods, and the rampant removal of species in the wild was leaving little room for regeneration.
The spark to develop a nursery dedicated to producing “muthi plants” and to train growers in the traditional methods, occurred over a glass of wine at a conference. Geoff discussed the problem with Barry Marshall, then with the Bureau of Natural Resources which serviced mainly traditional areas and who regularly confiscated harvested muthi species from women collectors in rural areas. They asked each other the question: “why is no one growing the stuff?”
Discussions, investigations and action plans followed, and Geoff contacted renowned traditional health practitioner Protus Cele, pupil and son of the well-known herbalist Paul Joachim Cele. Protus had run his late father’s herbal shop and surgery, Izihlahla Zemithi, in the Durban city centre until he was forcibly removed in terms of the Group Areas Act. He re-established his practice in Umlazi’s Section J and in 1979 founded the Herbal Traders and Izinyanga Association. It was through this that Geoff first met Protus.


Protus Cele in his herbalist store in J Section, Umlazi.

Photographer unknown

Protus provided Geoff with a list of 20 of the most popular medicinal plants and soon the nursery was successfully propagating all but one of the species. The species in question was a slender climber belonging to the granadilla family, Schlechterina mitostemmatoides that, in South African, only lives in the Sand Forests of Maputaland. First shown to Geoff by the late Mark Ward, Roddy Ward’s son, who took the images, its successful propagation is still eluding Geoff and current horticulturists at Silverglen!

Geoff and Protus struck up a true bond based on mutual trust and a love for plants and nature. Together they developed Silverglen not only into a medicinal plant nursery (a first for South Africa) but a place of learning, where propagation techniques, responsible harvesting and the role of izinyanga* can be better understood and appreciated.

An inyanga (pl. izinyanga) is a traditional healer and herbalist who works primarily with medicines made from plants and animals and should be distinguished from a sangoma, who typically relies on divination for healing purposes.

Geoff Nichols and Protus Cele.

Photo: Rose McDonald

The role models

“We tend to become like those we admire.”

Thomas Monson

Ian Garland and Trevor Coleman at a Raphia australis grove, Mtunzini 1985.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Roddy Ward, May 2003.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Most careers are shaped in one form or another by the people whose paths we cross, and Geoff has been fortunate to have encountered and been guided by many highly talented individuals, all with a common denominator in their passion for nature. His stint on the farm in Rietvlei was an early opportunity to learn from labourers who, despite having no education and speaking no English, could still share their deep knowledge of nature through the way they cultivated the land and handled plant species. This experience continued within the Parks Department, where one labourer in particular, Jabulani Mavundla, taught Geoff many basic life skills and had, in Geoff’s words, “the plant knowledge to grow anything.”

His early bosses at the municipality, Trevor Coleman and Errol Scarr, always challenged him to push ahead and Trevor in particular would involve him in plant collections, during which knowledge would generously be transferred to the ever-receptive learner. As he developed his professional network outside of the municipality, he was fortunate to engage with the likes of father and son Roddy and Mark Ward, Phillip Clancey, Hugh Nicholson and Rudolph Strey – the latter being someone whom Geoff remembers as always having a somewhat stern approach to life and botany. Meeting and learning from Ian Garland was an eye-opener in terms of the practical aspects of horticulture, while an enduring friendship with Brian Schrire which, in addition to all the learning exchanges also facilitated a three-week stay at Kew Gardens, was one of the highlights of Geoff’s professional career.

Geoff credits his wife Lynne, whom he met while on his course at Kirstenbosch, as having taught him “how to cope with humans”.

But he was also influenced by the writings of many scholars, such as the renowned Australian ecologist George Seddon – once called the ‘Professor of Things-in-General’ – and radical thinker Jared Diamond, amongst others.

Geoff was not only influenced by his role models but was himself, and remains to this day, an enormous influence on horticulturists, botanists and simple gardeners who look to him for guidance and advice. In an article on trees for the January 2016 edition of this magazine, Richard Boon wrote: “A friend suggested I visit Pigeon Valley Nature Reserve to see more species and I fell in love with the place (I estimate I have visited it over 1 000 times). On my first visit, I was trailed by Geoff Nichols who managed the reserve at the time and watched over it like a hawk. When he realised I was there for legitimate reasons, we got talking. It didn’t take me long to realise that I had just met the best naturalist in Durban. This was the start of a new journey for me as my interest in birds diversified to an interest in nature and with Geoff’s help I started learning plants.”

Geoff’s contribution to biodiversity has been recognised through numerous awards, too many to list here, the most recent being the prestigious Marloth Medal awarded in 2016 by The Botanical Society of South Africa which, in the words of the Society, “shall be awarded to an individual deemed to have had a highly distinguished career and to have made a significant contribution to advancing his or her discipline through writings, service to science, nurturing younger professionals and fostering the public understanding of science.”

From left: Hugh Nicholson, Rudolf Strey and Phillip Clancey admiring Bauhinia natalensis – Gibralter Farm, uMzimkhulu River near Oribi Flats

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Authoring books

“Writing about plants helps you to understand how little you really know!”

Geoff photographing Gladiolus cruentus in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve for a new book.

Photo: Paolo Candotti

As acknowledged in the Marloth Medal citation, sharing knowledge is something that comes naturally to Geoff, and in addition to his contribution as a role model, the sharing trait is well demonstrated by the many books and articles he has written and co-authored. Most of these are not commercially lucrative, mainly due to the limited market and high cost of production and distribution, so they are mostly a labour of love, motivated by a deep desire to help others understand and appreciate the incredible biodiversity we are fortunate to have. Geoff manifests that selfless dedication that true experts have and that is such a rare quality in the rush of modern life today.

For eight years he enjoyed writing regular columns for The Farmer’s Weekly and remarked that they were always challenging as the research had to be meticulous and accurate. “Farmers actually have a lot of time to sit and read their favourite magazine. If you write something that is not 100% correct they are quick to correct you. It taught me that writing about plants helps you to understand how little you really know!”

Since 1992 he has been, and continues to be, a regular contributor to the monthly knock-and-drop Grapevine Magazine which is distributed throughout Durban and Pietermaritzburg – with a distribution of 130 000 copies.

112 Plants for You and your Bushbuck: A Guide to the Fauna of Zimbali and Medicinal Plants: Traded on South African’s Eastern Seaboard are among some of the many books he has authored.

Geoff is currently working on what promises to be “the reference book of all South African garden plant reference books”. Co-authored with Elsa Pooley and Andrew Hankey and with contributions from over 82 other specialists, this book, titled Indigenous Garden Plants, will cover just over 2 000 species with more than 8 000 photographs, making it the most comprehensive garden book ever on the indigenous flora of South Africa – and something those interested in South Africa’s flora will be anxiously awaiting!

Krantzkloof Nature Reserve – “a life raft for biodiversity”

Kloof Gorge

Photo: Andrew McKay

Although he has never been a resident of Kloof, Geoff knows Krantzkloof Nature Reserve better than most, having spent many happy days in the late 1990s as part of the “plant nutters” group that included Rod Edwards, David Styles, Isabel Eyberg, Pete Turner, Edna Van den Bergh, Dave Raulston, then Krantzkloof Nature Reserve Conservation Manager Ian Pattrick and Neil Crouch.

Geoff comments that, “we should not underestimate the importance of preserving the likes of the Kloof, Oribi and uMtamvuna Gorges as they provide a last refuge for many rare species and they are essential life rafts for biodiversity.” He recalls giving talks at what was then the Interpretative Centre (now the Krantzkloof Conference Centre), recording birds along the Longshadows Trail with Dr Hamish Campbell and collecting plants in the Nkonka area with Trevor Coleman for Janet Gibson’s beautifully illustrated book, Wildflowers of Natal. In the mid-1980s Geoff also worked closely with Laurie McDonald, then Conservation Manager at Krantzkloof, in developing the first invasive alien plant-clearing programmes for the reserve.

The “story” of Krantzkloof’s Red Sunbird Bush has been told in numerous publications but it does bear repeating here as an example of how interlinked the “brotherhood” of botanists is. The tale starts in April 2000 with David Styles bush-whacking his way through the lower reaches of the Nkutu Gorge and finding a species he did not recognise (which is unusual for David!).

He took some cuttings and showed them to Geoff who was equally puzzled but was fortunate to be one of very few people at the time armed with a digital camera and access to e-mail! Geoff had a good friendship with Brian Schrire whom he had met when Brian was Curator of the Natal Herbarium, having subsequently moved to Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom.

The e-mail with the digital photo attachments was sent to Kew and Brian recognised the family (Acanthus) but not the species, so he passed it on to Norwegian botanist Kaj Vollesen, who was the expert on this family and who identified it as Metarungia pubinervia. The ‘mystery’ was made more complex because although the species is known in other parts of Africa, the most southerly point previously recorded was in Zimbabwe. To this day, the question of how the plant established itself in Krantzkloof remains a mystery – was it introduced accidentally or did it occur naturally? We will probably never know!

Red Sunbird Bush Metarungia pubinervia.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Restoration ecology – repairing the damage done by humans

Blue Duiker

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Tree Dassie

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Since leaving his post at the municipality in 1996 Geoff has worked as an environmental consultant focusing primarily on indigenous landscaping and restoration ecology – in some cases involving rebuilding indigenous habitats previously destroyed by commercial monocultures. It is in this work that he is able to merge all his knowledge and skills to develop habitats that acknowledge the human presence but at the same time show respect for nature.

He has worked closely with Ben Breedlove, an American wildlife biologist now based in South Africa who has developed his restoration designs around the concept of “ecological layers or strata”. These layers take into account the different habitats that exist as one moves vertically from the soil and ground cover to the top of the canopy in each garden or forest. Breedlove also emphasises that successfully rehabilitated areas or well-landscaped gardens need to integrate both flora and fauna for a healthy ecosystem and therefore one has to create habitats that contain Feeding, Breeding, Nesting and Resting (FBNR) areas for the fauna before true success can be achieved.

Geoff stresses the importance of basics in restoration ecology: “don’t worry about rare and special species, focus on getting the common ones established – the specials will come and feel at home later when the habitat is right.” Geoff’s own garden is home to the endangered Blue Duiker, Tree Dassies and over 125 bird species, including the Brown Scrub Robin whose melodious chant accompanies us as we stroll through the garden. In any lush South Coast garden you are also likely to find numerous snakes, which Geoff considers integral to a successful garden. “The green mambas love this place. There is a fairly large one that has its favourite spot next to the bird bath and it has its regular meals there!”

While his own garden contains many exotic species, Geoff is a strong supporter of planting indigenous species and his restoration and landscaping work is almost exclusively indigenous. “Elsa does have words with me about the exotics but that’s me, I am a horticulturist, I am a practitioner and they all have a place and meaning for me.” Just for the record, there isn’t a single invasive species in the garden!

Brown Robin Chat

Photo: Geoff Nichols

Another aspect that Geoff emphasises and which is very evident in his own garden is the importance of non-honeybee pollinators such as those from the family Megachilidae, or the many butterfly species that flitter between us as we continue our stroll. “Without these, you will be limiting the potential of your garden.”

A pollinator, Megachile combusta.

Photo: Geoff Nichols

The future – can humans survive?

“The metaphor is so obvious. Easter Island isolated in the Pacific Ocean — once the island got into trouble, there was no way they could get free. There were no other people from whom they could get help. In the same way that we, on Planet Earth, if we ruin our own world, we won’t be able to get help.”

Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

“It’s a close call as we seem to be doing our best to destroy the planet! Climate change is a reality, we see it all around us and I see it in the plants that I can grow where they would not grow before and vice versa.” Despite an obvious deep concern, Geoff sees hope in those communities not consumed by rampant industrialisation and commercialisation. “Those living in the river valleys of the Pongola, Tukhela, Umkomaas and Umzimkulu rivers understand the importance of the balance of nature and have the best chance of survival. It’s the deepest gorges and highest mountains which will remain our last treasure troves of biodiversity.”

As I get ready to leave Lynwood, Geoff hands over a small packet. It contains some delicate plant cuttings, including one from Roddy Ward’s Plectranthus saccatus. It may be a prompt to start my own botanical time-capsule, and I will mark these plants from Geoff as having come from a real gentleman and a true member of the Eco-Impi!

A pollinator, Papilio demodocus, on Hypoestes forskaolii.

Photo: Geoff Nichols