A short history of PlantLife

In 1979, Tony Abbott arrived with his wife and three children in Port Edward from Zimbabwe. There he bought the farm Clearwater on the edge of the Mtamvuna Nature Reserve and began a career as a banana farmer. With a local mentor in the form of the late Hugh Nicholson and assisted by Prof A.E. (Braam) van Wyk, he immersed himself in botanical exploration and discovery, focused particularly on the surrounding region of Pondoland. In 1989, he launched PlantLife as an A4 newssheet comprised of three photocopied pages, in which recorded “there are many people like myself who have come to the world of plants by non-professional or even accidental means.” The embryonic publication aimed to provide a forum to enable and stimulate communication between amateur botanists on the one hand and professionals on the other. It sought too to bridge the horticultural and botanical worlds, and keep the eyes of all on plant conservation. This was a matter of keen interest to Tony, as well as many others, and in pre-internet era the supporting role of such publications cannot be overstated.

By the next year, PlantLife was still produced as a simple, 15-page duplicated newssheet, substantially funded by Prof. A.E. (Braam) van Wyk. Contributors included David Green, Prof. Kevin Balkwill and Prof. Charles (Charlie) Stirton. Subsequent issues were often double that length. By 1991, PlantLife sported a cardboard cover, including a greater number of contributions from amateur and professional botanists. From that time, issues also recorded Braam van Wyk as the scientific editor, although amateur-written articles often predominated. While articles were connected with all parts of South Africa, many dealt with the plants and botanical exploration of Pondoland, with which Tony was so intimately involved. Noelline Kroon in 1999 authored the one and only supplementary volume of the journal, a checklist of the plants identified at a site near Sasolburg in the Free State.

In 2001, a new editorial committee was formed. After 13 years, Tony felt that he had held a good innings as editor and wanted to retire from PlantLife to focus on other challenges. Although he remained nominally the editor-in-chief, the editorial work was now undertaken by Prof. Neil Crouch, and the production moved from Port Edward and the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast to Durban.

However, Neil accepted Tony’s invitation on the stipulation that he would remain for two years only. The journal continued as it had up to date, relying on voluntary support to produce each issue. However, there were now more ready hands to ensure delivery, with Tessa Hedge and David Styles subediting to hone submissions into the required style. Christine Smart replaced the long-serving Jo Arkell (also from Port Edward) as the production editor, and Tanza Crouch ordered and managed the subscriber database. Christine brought to PlantLife a new layout format, font and even printer. Although this resulted in the product having a somewhat glossier feel, it retained its familiar scope of horticulture, conservation and botanical discovery. Twice yearly on delivery of the hard copy ‘postage parties’ were held by the Durban-based PlantLife team, when the tedious task of filling some 200 addressed envelopes was relieved with wine and snacks. The long-standing tradition of inviting artists to showcase their artwork on the journal cover was continued, particularly those from the relatively young Botanical Artists Association of South Africa (BAASA). The opportunities to expose their skills were taken up both by well-established illustrators such as Sandra Burrows, and by lesser-known talent the likes of Errol Douwes. At the end of 2002, PlantLife faced an uncertain future. Part of this was editorial continuity, but part was also due to funding as there was a gap between subscription income and costs.

For the next decade, PlantLife was edited by David Styles and during this time a productive association was formed with the KwaZulu-Natal Coastal Branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa, which was able to offer both administrative and much needed financial assistance. The format of articles also changed. Many of the original amateur contributors had faded away and there was an increase in scientific content.

Although no longer involved with the journal’s editorial or production work, Tony Abbott maintained an interest in it, and in 2006, when contributions were being sought for the next issue, offered to contribute an overall account of the history and plants of Pondoland. By this time, the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust had also become an important sponsor. That year a special issue, titled “The Story of the Pondoland Centre” was published. As many photographs were available, together with sponsorship, it was possible to publish PlantLife in full-colour for the first time.

Subsequently, it was felt that a return to an all black-and-white format would be a step backwards, and in the second issue of that year, PlantLife was part-colour. Thereafter all issues were in full-colour. However, this increased production costs and created more reliance on sponsorship. Over the years, PlantLife had always been produced by unpaid volunteers, but it also evolved away from its original, amateur origins. At the end of 2012, a number of factors combined to challenge further issue of PlantLife as a printed publication, including funding challenges and the amount of time needed to acquire and write articles consistent with a semi-scientific format. However, the rise of the Internet has enabled relatively low cost online publishing together with the ability to reach a larger audience. This created the opportunity to launch PlantLife as a Web-based publication that caters more exactly to an expanded amateur constituency.


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