04 March 2014

Cedar at Pearson's Grave

Pearson's grave through the Mount Atlas Cedar. Photo: John Hughes, February 2014.

From the same spot, a photo taken in c. 1925 of Pearson’s grave. Alice Notten of Kirstenbosch discovered this photo in the National Archives and says that, although undated, the Dell shed was built in 1923 and enclosed by a spar fence in 1924, so this must have been soon after that. Photo: National Archives AG COLLECTION AG 6424.
An article by Denis Woods (prepared by Denis Woods prior to his death on August 18, 1977 and published posthumously) in the December 1977 issue of Veld & Flora(vol 63).

Professor H. H. W. Pearson , the first director of Kirstenbosch, was buried in the Gardens after his death on 3rd November, 1916.
Among the interesting plants in the vicinity of his grave is a fine specimen of the Mount Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica var glauca) originally from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. I had, in the past, been told some strange tales concerning the acquisition of this tree, but recently got the true story from Dr John Rourke, Curator of the Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch.
Pearson, an inspiring enthusiast for botany, was devoted to the study of Gymnosperms (a family including the Cycads, the Yellowwoods, the Cypresses and Welwitschia), and an authority on them. The plant was a gift to him from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, arriving at Kirstenbosch on 21st August, 1916. It had originally been grown at La Mortola, near Ventimiglia on the Italian Riviera, the famous garden of the well-known plant lover, Sir Thomas Hanbury, who was devoted to the cause of botany.

Slowly and sedately, the Kirstenbosch Mount Atlas Cedar has grown into a handsome tree. Standing on the slope above Pearson’s grave, and about 15 metres from it in a south westerly direction, the tree rises about 20 metres high, but is due, in the course of time, to grow much higher and more massive. There are three varieties of the Mount Atlas Cedar, and this one, var glauca, is so called in reference to its beautiful grey-blue foliage with a silvery sheen.
Something should be said about La Mortola itself. When Arnold Bennett, the writer, met Sir Thomas Hanbury in 1904, he described him as “the Lord God of these parts”, adding “Sir Thomas has the finest private garden in the world, 100 acres, 5 000 species (some absolutely unique) and 46 gardeners. He is far from an ordinary man.
For many years Alwin Berger was curator of this garden, building up a considerable collection which included much Cape flora. Visitors described the place as “magnificent”.
On the death of Sir Thomas the garden passed into the hands of his son, Sir Cecil.
During the Second World War the beautiful villa and grounds were occupied by German officers. La Mortola suffered severely, especially the Cape flora, but afterwards the widow of Sir Cecil Hanbury set to work restoring the garden.
So much for the true story.
Much earlier in 1927 when as a comparative green horn I was admiring this tree which was then little more than a Sapling, a knowledgeable looking gentleman told me that this Mount Atlas Cedar was a gift to Kirstenbosch from the Sultan of Morocco at the time the gardens started. Kew ex La Mortola, or the Atlas Mountains - no matter it is a magnificent tree and is a credit both to the gardens and its first Director: Professor Pearson.
Whilst not on the seed list, one member obtained seed from this superb specimen o f C. atlantica and was very disappointed to have nil germination This is perhaps understandable as atlantica in common with other species o f Cedrus comes from cold high places. The Arnold Arboretum in their propagation manual o f Selected Gymnosperms (Arnoldia vol. 37 No. 1 Jan/Feb. 1977) recommend a period of cold stratification even in the north eastern slates o f America  f a reasonable rate o f germination is to be achieved. In our warmer climate it would appear to be essential. The process, which in effect simulates the cold winter to which seeds are exposed in their native climate, high up in the Atlas mountains, consists o f placing the seed in a plastic bag with two or three times its own bulk o f sand and peat moss, in the lower part o f a domestic refrigerator (not a freezer) for about two months where the temperature will be about 5°C (40°F). This breaks the winter dormancy and provides reasonable levels o f germination. The need to break dormancy o f seed can occur with plants with seed that is dormant during a cold winter, a dry summer or even with a double dormancy. With the varied climate in places like the Cedarberg or the Drakensberg, it would be interesting to know what dormancy cycles our own flora has. - Ed (Heinz Engelhardt).

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