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SANBI online: treasure trove for gardeners

By Martin Hatchuel

, |

SANBI online: treasure trove for gardeners

By Martin Hatchuel

, |

4 min read

The South African National Biodiversity Institute’s awesome online resources make finding information about the living world around us a genuine pleasure. And if you’re a gardener, developer, or estate manager with a special interest in indigenous plants, it’s a treasure trove almost as rich as biodiversity itself.

It’s true what they say about the incredible variety of South Africa’s plants: this beautiful country is astonishingly rich in species – probably more so than any other country in the world.

Case in point: In 1947, the British botanist Ronald Good divided the world into six floral kingdoms according to broad similarities among the kinds of plant communities that grow in each one of them – a system still in use today, except they are now called floristic regions. The largest, the Boreal (or Holarctic) Region, covers most of North America and Eurasia, while the smallest, the Capensic (or South African) Region, boasts more than 9,500 species (about 75% of which occur nowhere else in the world), and includes only about 553,000 hectares of our coastline – from Vanrhynsdorp on the West Coast, around the Southern Tip, and along to about Makhanda (Grahamstown) in the east.

And them’s just the plants!

There are also the birds and the bees, the mammals, the noo-noos …

But wait! There’s more, because South Africa as a whole is also divided into eight different biomes – a biome being a defined region characterised by a particular climate and a typical geography:

  • the grassland biome, found mostly on the highveld
  • savanna, the country’s largest biome that includes the lowveld and covers most of the western parts of Limpopo, the northern parts of the Northern Cape and the Free State, and also the North West Province and KwaZulu-Natal
  • the succulent Karoo, which includes the west coast of the Northern Cape, and the northern parts of the Western Cape
  • the Nama Karoo, the country’s second largest biome that covers most of the Northern Cape and the Free State
  • the forest biome, a patchy mosaic found in the eastern escarpment (around Knysna and Hogsback, and also in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga)
  • fynbos, the supremely biodiverse flowering scrublands of the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape
  • the Albany thicket, along the coasts of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape
  • the desert biome, most of which is across the border in Namibia, but there is a small section of true desert in the Richtersveld, which is otherwise mostly succulent Karoo.


Biodiveristy Act

Recognising the value of these amazing riches, the government enacted NEMBA – the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act – in 2004. Among many other things, this act established the South African National Biodiversity Institute, which is mandated to ‘explore, reveal, celebrate and champion biodiversity for the benefit and enjoyment of all South Africans’.

Today, SANBI manages the country’s ten national botanical gardens – Kirstenbosch being the oldest and most famous among them, of course – as ‘windows on biodiversity’. But it also manages the foundations of biodiversity – collections, taxonomy, inventory, maps, classification of ecosystems and species, and so on; concerns itself with increasing our collective knowledge of the natural world that surrounds us; helps the country convert science into policy and action; and, probably most significantly for our communities, it shares the information it collects and curates.
Shares it on on a grand scale. And you get most of it online for free.


Just take a look at the list on its ‘Resources’ page ( downloadable documents, links to useful websites, infobases (electronic resources developed by SANBI and partners), atlases that record species distribution, and even real-world, brick-and-mortar libraries – they’re all there.

For gardeners, though, possibly the most useful – and easy for the layperson to understand – of SANBI’s sites is PlantsZAfrica (

This must be the most comprehensive site about South Africa’s bewildering array of plants, with comprehensive articles about each listed species (and they’re listing more and more all the time). There are articles with information about each plant’s natural habits, its uses in our traditions and culture, notes on its history, how it got its name(s), and – here’s the best part for home owners – how to propagate it, and how to use it in your garden.

Planners – and, indeed, anyone who wants to ensure that they’re choosing the right plants for their neighbourhood – will want to access the National Vegetation Map Project: ‘A large collaborative project that was established to classify, map and sample the vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland’, the project includes the map itself, and the classification system and national vegetation database that underpin it – all of which are ‘fundamentally important for environmental planning, conservation management, biodiversity assessment and research in the floristically diverse region of southern Africa’.


Biodiversity advisor

For planners, developers and estate managers, SANBI’s Biodiversity Advisor – – provides access to biodiversity information for help with decision-making, planning, and research. There’s an interactive identification guide to the country’s TOPS (threatened or protected species) and CITES-listed species, as well as a raft of documents about biodiversity stewardship, which it defines as ‘an approach to entering into agreements with private and communal landowners to protect and manage land in biodiversity-priority areas’. This is significant, because some types of biodiversity stewardship agreements can be formally recognised under the Protected Areas Act to provide them with long-term security.

Finally, the National Vegetation Map 2018 – – has detailed descriptions of all 459 vegetation types found in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Vegetation types being even finer in scale than biomes, you can use this map as a guide when choosing the most appropriate species to plant in your location.

SANBI describes its mission as ‘the exploration, conservation, sustainable use, appreciation and enjoyment of South Africa’s exceptionally rich biodiversity for all South Africans’. And it certainly seems to be succeeding.

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