Father of Natal botany: John Medley Wood

Text Robin Lamplough Images Various


Some senior readers may remember Durban’s Medwood Gardens, a pleasant park in the city centre, with a tearoom in one corner. It was within walking distance of the railway station and St Paul’s church, as well as the municipal swimming pool. Not all, however, would realise that the park was named in honour of a man who made a significant contribution to the scientific understanding of plant life in the province.

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Medwood Gardens, Durban

Born in England’s Nottinghamshire, John Wood was the son of a widowed lawyer who married again and emigrated as a Byrne settler to Natal in 1850. John spent seven years in the merchant navy, rising to the rank of acting chief officer. In 1852 he too moved to Natal.

After helping his father for a while as a clerk, he acquired a property at the mouth of the Mdloti river, where he experimented with a variety of crop plants. He is credited with identifying a strain of sugar cane which is resistant to the mosaic virus. In 1855 he married the younger sister of his step-mother.

Seeking to escape the heat of the coast, however, in 1868 he moved inland to Inanda, where he became a livestock farmer and ran a trading store. He also undertook occasional trips to trade in Zululand, a common practice among the settlers of the day.

At Inanda, Wood became interested in the local non-flowering plants: mosses, ferns and fungi. He started a plant collection and shared information with Rev John Buchanan, who in 1875 had produced a list of Natal ferns. In 1877, Wood published A popular description of the Natal ferns. This title used the word ‘popular’ in the sense of ‘for ordinary folk’, not specialists. Two years later, he produced The classification of ferns.

Appointed curator

In 1882, Wood was invited by the Durban Botanical Society to become the curator of the town’s botanical gardens. He agreed on condition that he would be allowed also to develop a herbarium there. He held the position until his retirement in 1912. Under his management the gardens came to be regarded as one of the foremost in the British empire.

By this time, Wood was corresponding with experts at London’s Kew Gardens, acknowledged as the world’s leading botanical establishment, as well as with individual specialists in Europe. In 1880, a visiting Austrian (another account says Polish) botanist took over Wood’s collection of Natal mosses. In 1887 Wood was elected an Associate of the Linnean Society of London, advertised as ‘the world’s oldest active biological society’, which had been founded almost a century earlier.

For the next decade, Wood actively collected specimens all over Natal and Zululand. He produced an impressive list of publications. Undoubtedly, however, his John Medley Wood was a six-volume series on Natal Plants. This included information on the distribution and economic value of the plants described, as well as their “native names”. In 1913 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of the Cape of Good Hope, forerunner of Unisa. When he died in 1915, he was working on a seventh volume of Natal Plants.

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Natal Plants the “magnus opus” of John Medley Wood

Some readers may object that Wood’s sphere of activities was too far from our home ground to be strictly relevant in this publication. That would be unjust. His final piece of research, incomplete at the time of his death, was an investigation of a Senecio species (many varieties of which are described in one reference book as ‘common weeds’!) in the Krantzkloof. A colleague who later completed the description named it, in his honour, Senecio medley-woodii.

Sadly, after Wood’s death, the Natal herbarium which he had founded declined in importance for almost half a century, during which time his successors concentrated almost exclusively on plant diseases. This lasted until the early 1960s, when the focus was changed back to what Wood had intended and had himself established.

Other interests

This account may have created the impression that Wood’s whole focus was on his interest in plants. That would be misleading. He was an avid follower of Natal soccer. As president of the Berea football club, he was a well-known figure at local grounds. When his marriage turned out to be childless, he and his wife adopted no fewer than three children, whom they raised as their own. He was known for his keen sense of humour, although he tended to be impatient with and dismissive of opinions which differed from his own.

Prof. Crouch reported in 2004 that the site of Wood’s home at Inanda had been positively identified. We are told by isiZulu speakers that the word eNanda conveys the idea of spaciousness. The Inanda Heritage Route includes Ghandi’s house near Bambayi, as well as the homes of John L. Dube and the places of learning he established. Not far away lies the centre established by religious leader Isaiah Shembe. It would be a statesmanlike addition, a quarter-century after the establishment of majority rule, to add a reference to the location of Wood’s home in the area, which contributed the label ’inandensis’ to a significant number of Natal plants. It would be a 21st century salute to a man who, in his particular field, has left a mark on Natal as enduring as any other and more enduring than many.

Is it too much to hope that one day his contribution to the botany of the region will receive that kind of recognition?

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Sculpture of John Medley Wood at the Durban Botanic Gardens


With acknowledgement to eNanda Online and articles in Plant Life by David Styles and Neil R. Crouch, both of whom are undoubtedly, like John Medley Wood, (in the late Ian Pattrick’s unforgettable phrase) ‘plant nutters’.

About the author

Robin taught History for many years at Kearsney College. Since 2004 Jean and he have lived in a hillside complex at Waterfall, daily enjoying the quiet, the views and the wildlife. Robin is also a regular contributor of historical articles to a number of magazines.