Brackenhurst Botanic Garden

Above: Brackenhurst Conference Centre and Botanic Gardens in Tigoni, 25-km northwest of Nairobi Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: Saturday magazine, Nation media 28 October 2017

Lilac burst of an Acanth (400 species in Kenya). This is a South African Hypoestes, Copyright Rupi Mangat
Lilac burst of an Acanth (400 species in Kenya). This is a South African Hypoestes, Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s popping with colour under the canvas of a gorgeous blue sky. Orange aloes in bloom attract an array of colourful sunbirds – Variable, Tacazze, Golden-winged and more. An African goshawk vanishes into the canopy of a tree and many more keep the birders glued skyward.

It’s a beautiful October morning at Brackenhurst Conference Centre and Botanic Gardens in Tigoni, 25-km northwest of Nairobi through the Limuru highlands of lush green tea fields.

The birds lead the way through the garden, one of the most interesting in the country, so full of indigenous plants of all colour.

Under the canopy of the indigenous tree Copyright Rupi Mangat
Under the canopy of the indigenous tree Copyright Rupi Mangat

A pair of eagles soar the skies by the entrance to a grove of trees. Under the canopy, it’s cool and under our feet, dry leaves crinkle on the forest floor.

The forest of Brackenhurst is an amazing landscape restoration project that’s replaced the introduced cypress, eucalyptus and wattle trees that were here only 17 years ago to provide fuel-wood for the tea plantations.

Plants for Life

Canopy of the 17-year-old indigenous tree Copyright Rupi Mangat
Canopy of the 17-year-old indigenous tree Copyright Rupi Mangat

Most people see a forest as a place just for trees.

But there’s more to it than just that.

Walking through with the rest of the birders enraptured with the forest birds, it’s exciting listening to Mark Nicholson, director of Plants for Life at the Brackenhurst Botanic Garden.

Seventeen years ago he walked into Brackenhurst to complain about the ‘forest’ – all the non-indigenous trees and invasive plants that were draining the water out of the earth and making the soils poorer besides driving off all the wild and wonderful creatures.

The good folks at Brackenhurst listened to the man and then politely said to him ‘well if you are so concerned why don’t you do something about it?’

It was the Eureka moment.

Nicholson – a vet by profession – with his team started the landscape restoration programme on the 100-acre land, gradually replacing the non-indigenous and the killer-invasive plants with local indigenous trees.

Strolling through the cool of the forest with rays of sunlight streaming through to the leaf-clad ground, we’re looking at hardwoods like Prunus africana, Podocarpus and Warburgia ugandensis among the fifty species in the forest.

All three of these trees – that until a hundred years ago were common – are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red list of globally threatened species.

Every one of these trees has medicinal properties, offer ecological services and are an important food source for wildlife.  The legendary Dian Fossey documented that the fruits of Prunus africana found on one of the mountains of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda were highly favoured by mountain gorillas.

Likewise the colobus monkeys have returned after 15 years because of the podo. This black and white monkey of the old forest is arboreal, meaning it rarely comes down to earth and is a specialized leaf eater – but not of the exotic eucalyptus, cypress or wattle.

Nicholson continues with the list of returnees to the ‘new’ indigenous forest – genets, bushpigs, civets including the palm civet that’s nocturnal and arboreal. When he mentions that, in my mind’s eye l picture us on a midnight walk through this enchanted forest that was once so devoid of all things wonderful.

“Forests are more than just trees,” states Nicholson, stopping by a swamp edged by sedges – and we’re talking indigenous forests. “They are big in biodiversity and trophic levels (in simple language it’s the food chain) and so we’re seeing more birds, mammals, insects and reptiles.”

Mark Nicholson talking about the Malawian national tree, Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) that will be gone in ten years if their habitats are not protected (taller tree) and the shorter Juniperus procera or African pencil cedar (shorter tree).   Copyright Rupi Mangat
Mark Nicholson talking about the Malawian national tree, Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) that will be gone in ten years if their habitats are not protected (taller tree) and the shorter Juniperus procera or African pencil cedar (shorter tree).   Copyright Rupi Mangat

With the midday sun above us we step out of the forest and stroll past some of Africa’s rarest trees that are close to extinction in the wild like Kenya’s Gigasiphon macrosiphon with a handful found in Kaya Muhaka on South Coast, and the Malawian national tree, Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) that will be gone in ten years if their habitats are not protected.

The walk’s built up an appetite and we relish lunch – steaks, cakes and coffee at the Muna Tree Cafe –named after a trio of the indigenous trees in the garden and tallest of all.

In the high-ceilinged, close to a century-old dining room a gargantuan buffet is served under the gaze of Lord and Lady Brackenhurst – but it’s just a portrait for bracken is a kind of fern found in the area.

Pictures of what the area looked like shows Tigoni, the place of mist, more rural than today.

Be at Brackenhurst https://brackenhurst.com/

Red hot indigenous erythrina tree at Brackenhirst - copyright Rupi Mangat
Red hot indigenous erythrina tree at Brackenhirst – copyright Rupi Mangat

Great for families and nature-lovers. Lots to do from biking, hiking, team building followed by superb meals.

Join Nature Kenya naturekenya.org for a great outdoor life as you learn about the wild and wonderful world around us.

Click here to watch a short clip of the day at Brackenhurst

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