By Vernon Buxton
There was a man born nearly 150 years ago who clearly understood the myriad miracles of our incredible Planet…and how to enhance some of those miracles for the benefit of those who came into the world behind him. He deeply revered NATURE and it’s endless spectacular diversity and bounty. His name was Harold Basil Christian.
Nature’s miracle that is the aloe species – this gorgeous plant representing this truly magnificent genus…this one named Aloe cameronii. It was the first aloe that Harold Christian planted in his garden near Harare in Zimbabwe. Nature really is something, isn’t it?
Only 45 kilometres north-east of Harare, along the road to Shamva, there stands a unique garden nestling between rugged hills and thick, tropical bush. It is called Ewanrigg Botanic Gardens and it was founded in 1911 by one Harold Basil Christian. This esteemed Mr. Christian (1871-1950) was a South African-born Rhodesian farmer, horticulturalist and botanist. In 1911, Harold moved to Rhodesia and bought a 662 morgen (about 165 hectares) farm which he named ‘Ewanrigg’, after an old family property on the Isle of Man.
The garden came into existence in a most unusual way.Harold had built his house on a kopje and added a croquet lawn in front. In the centre of the lawn a large rock protruded above the ground and, despite much digging, was unable to be removed. Harold took a gardener to a hill close by and uprooted an aloe, having it replanted on the lawn, “to hide the stark appearance of this unsightly rock,” he later wrote.
When the aloe (later identified as an aloe cameronii) flowered the following winter, despite no watering, Harold was so pleased that he decided to focus on gardening native African aloes, instead of imported plants, which had been his plan.
In addition to gardening, which Harold began as a hobby, he was an active farmer and leading figure in the Rhodesian agricultural community. He served as president of the Rhodesian Agricultural Union from 1929 to 1931. During the 1930s he expanded his garden and published his research on aloes in periodicals like the Rhodesian Agricultural Journal.
Ewanrigg Botanic Gardens is little more than a half-hour’s ride from Harare and could have been one of the city’s leading cash-cows, never mind a sharing of brilliant creativity and Nature’s incredible wonder. This was something that had to be seen to be believed. Every species was laid out in huge spreads of its colour, with varieties of that species nearby, creating a splendid collective extravaganza of beautiful succulents.
From 1916 onwards, numerous rockeries were constructed and Harold acquired more and more aloes for the garden which, of course, went on to become a botanic garden of considerable renown. And July is the best month of the year to be there!
Over the years Harold became recognised by botanists around the world as an authority on African aloe species, one of which was name Aloe christianii in his honour. In later years he branched out into the cultivation of cycads. He remains a Rhodesian hero and his natural monument (with no statue to be knocked down, thank mercy) is out there on the Shamva Road, providing visitors with a kaleidoscope of ‘succulent’ colour during the winter months, even though the garden is appealing throughout the year.
Amid rolling hills, enveloped in thick endemic trees, stands seemingly endless displays of aloes, succulents and euphoria reaching up into deep-blue skies.
This Aloe chabaudii will be found in the company of considerable numbers of other varieties of this species, which enjoys an extremely bold and alluring flower, does it not? Picture a half a hectare of this genus in one spread.
Aloe excelsa is a tall aloe with a flower that looks like a firework display. How would you like one of these in your garden? It would, of course, take a long time to reach such a heavenly height. Our freeway intersections could be full of these beauties.
During the winter months sunbirds descend on Ewanrigg in greater numbers to suckle on the sweet juices emanating from flowers in full bloom. Camera ready…click, click, click! July is a perfect time to be out there amid rugged hills, rocks and msasa trees…never mind being drenched in nostalgia if you were there in better years.
I was last at Ewanrigg about 50 years ago, when it was at its splendid zenith of horticultural excellence. And, I now read that the garden is not a shadow of its former self and that is indeed lamentable, given that Ewanrigg was quite one of world’s most expansive displays of aloes, euphorbia and succulents. It was a magnificent achievement by any standards.
Clearly, what Ewanrigg Botanic Gardens needs right now is a person of impeccable breeding, obvious class, superior education, exceptional human values, immense creativity and an enhanced sense of the aesthetic. For that was Harold Christian and all we ask if one more person like him. Yet – given all the givens – that may prove to be an unreachable star and all we can do in the interim is to dream the impossible dream.
In its heyday, and I indeed do remember Ewanrigg Botanic Gardens in its heyday, it was quite the place for a day’s outing, including a picnic or braai among the beautiful rocks and msasa trees.
At this moment, as I end this piece, with nostalgia piercing my soul, I feel so good about Harold Christian and his extraordinary horticultural achievement. Would that Providence affords me just one more chance to visit Harold’s ‘symphony in succulents’ – and I’d be further overjoyed to discover that his superior creation has not been completely trashed by cold indifference, ineptitude and wasted decades. (My friend Carol Johnson in Harare told me she’s was going out to Ewanrigg this weekend and I look forward to feedback, Carol.)
Here’s to you, Mr Christian, Sir, we thank you and bless you and revere you for such a grand heritage – and may the Universe nurture your soul forevermore.
Love and Peace,
Images by Vernon Buxton