For love of South Africa’s plants…

Mike and Liz Fraser at home with their recently published book by Kew called The Smallest Kingdom.
Mike and Liz Fraser at home with their recently published book by Kew called The Smallest Kingdom.
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A SELKIRK couple’s “labour of love”, a beautiful book about the plants and plant collectors of the Cape of Good Hope, is out in the Borders now.

RSPB officer Mike Fraser and his wife, Liz, a teacher and artist, devoted years of evenings, weekends and holiday time to The Smallest Kingdom. Last month Kew Publishing, the publishing arm of the famous botanic gardens, published the informative coffee table book.

“It’s our celebration of the Cape because it’s such a wonderful place with wonderful people and wonderful wildlife and this is us saying thanks,” said Mr Fraser.

The couple lived in South Africa for 12 years and wrote two books, one on the fynbos, the Cape’s heathland vegetation, and another on the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve.

They started their latest book in 1995 while still in Africa and have spent every spare moment on it since.

“Most people will have a South African flower or Cape flower in their garden whether they realise it or not – it’s our intention to help them to appreciate it, “ said Mr Fraser.

“It’s sort of a coffee table book – it’s full of what we think are interesting things. The Cape is where a lot of garden plants come from and it’s the history of that. A lot of gardeners went down to the Cape and a high proportion of them were Scots, some of whom came from the Borders and all the important ones are in the book.

“It’s amazing how many garden plants here have come from the Cape, specifically pelargoniums which we mistakenly call geraniums, agapanthuses, freesias, gladioli...”

The first international dedicated plant collector went to the Cape, sent by Kew Gardens.

“From a biodiversity point of view it’s fantastic, it’s floristically more diverse than the Amazon,” said Mr Fraser.

The couple met on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth in 1982 when Mr Fraser was warden at the reserve and Liz, a student, came to paint. They kept in touch.

Mr Fraser had two days notice to go to the south Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha where he carried out research for six months – and where the upland inaccessible bunting (Nesospiza acunhae fraseri) was named after him. As he was returning in 1983 the ship stopped off at Cape Town and he went up to the university on the offchance to speak to ornithologists: “The upshot was I was offered a post... I came back to Scotland, met up with Liz again and we went to South Africa in 1984.”

He carried out research with the university’s ornithology department while Liz, a graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee, worked as a freelance artist, doing painting plants and wildlife and working on books.

In 1988, the Fishers wrote and illustrated A Fynbos Year, the first substantial book on the unique vegetation. Between Two Shores, the book on the Cape nature reserve, came in 1994, and garnered them a Botanical Society of South Africa’s award for promoting conservation.

“It was a great life for two young people,” said Mr Fraser, who is a member of the advisory panel of a top birding magazine, Birdwatch.

They started work on their latest book in 1995: “As soon as we finished Between Two Shores, we did a couple of years looking around at the plants and doing research and visiting some of the sites where the original people had gone and collected the plants,” said Mr Fraser

They returned to Britain in 2005 and trained as teachers. The RSPB conservation officer’s job based in Selkirk came up and Mrs Fraser, a member of the Society of Scottish Artists, was supply teaching before becoming a full-time special needs teacher at the town’s high school.

“When we could, we were working on the book, Liz painting the plants that had been developed here – she had gone from painting things in the wild to painting things in pots.”

And research took them to libraries, herbaria, the Natural History Museum, gardens and nurseries – and a fossick through the original specimens collected by Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter, Francis Masson.

“It’s been really enjoyable, it’s been very hard work but we have got the final product out and I think it looks pretty good. It’s been a labour of love – or insanity!” said Mr Fraser.

Copies of the book – and a display copy – are available at The Forest Bookstore in Selkirk’s Market Place.