Wim Tijmens – great botanist and the questions he asked plants
Martin Smit, former curator of the SU Botanical Gardens shared his memories of Wim Tijmens, long serving curator of the Gardens and a legend in botanical circles, with our readers. Wim passed away on 3 November and leaves an everlasting legacy of excellence, not only at the Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens, but also worldwide amongst all his friends and colleagues.
Even though Wim Tijmens is often associated with the Stellenbosch University Botanical Garden where he was curator from 1962 to 1999, his influence and energy was much larger than this tiny botanical garden could ever contain.
In his first years as curator, Wim consolidated the work of his predecessors, the curator, Hans Herre and horticulturist, Helmut Meyer. In fact they all worked together for quite a few years since Hans Herre still diligently continued his research on vygies, and Helmut Meyer only retired in 1975.
During this period many of the current garden features were built and many plant collections and new garden sections were established. This includes amongst others the well known bonsai collection and the waterlily ponds.
It is especially later in his career that Wim travelled far and wide and notably developed an especially strong passion for China. Besides China, Wim also spent considerable time in the USA where he became life-long friends with a fellow South African, Betty Scholtz who as director and later president of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden made a real mark in the botanical garden community in the USA.
Wim was also quite active in the field of landscape architecture. Amongst others, he was a founding member of the Institute for Landscape Architecture of South Africa (ILASA) and, along with his friends and colleagues Joan Pim and Ann Sutton, was instrumental in establishing the first Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pretoria.
He also also kept good (and equally eccentric) company with many internationally well-regarded landscape architects such as Roberto Burle-Marx and Ian McHarg amongst others.
Wim’s main passion might have been landscapes and gardens but he also loved plants and especially the stories they could tell. He always used to say: “You have to ask a plant three questions in order to get to know them; What is your name?; Where are you from?; How did you get here?”
In his mind all plants regardless of their context in the garden landscape were also ambassadors of the regions they were from. Those who ever had the pleasure of having a guided walk with Wim in a garden or attended one of his theatrical lectures will definitely remember some of these stories. And it was not only the content of the stories themselves but also the way in which he told them that made them so unforgettable.
My first interaction with Wim came in 2013, whilst still living in the USA, shortly after being named the new curator at the SU Botanical Garden. Those who knew Wim knows he never sent an email in his life but he simply leveraged his extensive international network to track me down and reach out to me.
From the start Wim was always very interested to learn about the new plans for the botanical garden and he certainly influenced the way I envisioned the future of the garden. Even though there is a popular world-wide movement for gardening with predominantly or even exclusively indigenous plants, Wim quickly pointed out the unique nature of the botanical garden in a national and African context.
Even if it was the only university botanical garden in the Cape Floristic Region it was also the only classical academic botanical garden on the continent. Where else in Africa were you able to experience everything you could in the foremost botanical gardens in the world and see plants from all over the globe in the space of an hour?
He was absolutely correct and his lesson about keeping the balance between cultural and natural landscapes and it was something we always tried to consider in the botanical garden during my tenure.
Wim might have been larger than life and considered eccentric by many but he was always well-respected by the people he worked with, both inside and outside the botanical garden. Many current curators, horticulturists, landscape architects will also attest the influence Wim had on them early in their careers. For some of these colleagues this includes fond memories of Wim egging on their love for plants and gardens whilst visiting the garden as school pupils or students.
Wim certainly leaves a lasting legacy not only in the many gardens he worked on but also in the form of his influence on many of those working in these gardens all around the world today. He will certainly be missed and fondly remembered by many friends and colleagues.