It is on record that a Marthinus Van Staden, an early elephant hunter, had been there in 1752 . Probably one of the foremost trek-farmers that crossed the Gamtoos river in the late 1740’s and chose ground for himself before officialdom descended. Therefore possible that he had the land near Thornhill and the farm and the area got its name.
In 1882 botanical artist Marianne North spent time at Cadle's Hotel (now the site of Woodridge Preparatory School) overlooking the Van Stadens gorge and together with Russell Hallack (of Satyrium hallackii and Disa hallackii) admired the nearby Van Stadens Berg on horseback, an experience she describes enthusiastically in her book, written in 1893. Born in 1830, Marianne North devoted her life to travelling the world and painting plants. Although she had no formal training in illustration, and was rather unconventional in her methods, Marianne North had a natural artistic talent and was very prolific. She inherited her interest in travelling from her father, the MP Frederick North. Her political connections served her well, providing her with letters of introduction to ambassadors, viceroys, rajahs, governors and ministers all over the world.
George Urton (1911-1956), Deputy Superintendent of Parks in Port Elizabeth initiated the proclamation of the Van Stadens Wild Flower reserve in 1951
Her painting of Protea cynaroides from Van Stadens which she did during her stay at Cadle’s 1882-1883 is entitled: ‘Not one Flower, but many in one, Van Staaden's Kloof’ referring to the multiple florets in a single inflorescence.
Itwasn’t the first painting of this plant, already illustrated in 1745 by Weinmann.
Helen Joyce Vanderplank was born on 28 July 1919 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in England and was educated at the Clifton High School for Girls in Bristol.
After her training as a school teacher at the Froebel Educational Institute in Roehampton London, she went on to become a junior lecturer in the natural history department there.
At the insistence of her principal, Dr Frieda Howarth, she enrolled for night classes at Birkbeck College, London University where she qualified with a B.Sc. Hons in Botany and Zoology.
Frieda Howarth had a great deal of influence on the young Helen and while working at the Institute they were jointly responsible for the publication by the University of London of the first six books of the Natural History Series in the 1950s, written by Dr Howarth and beautifully illustrated by Helen.
They obviously had a close working relationship which was amusingly illustrated by Helen’s recounting of Frieda’s impatience with an importunate young man who asked too many questions and wasted her time: David Attenborough, later to become a world renowned naturalist, was at that time a young man hardly out of short pants and Helen was detailed on many occasions by Frieda to 'take him to the garden and amuse him while I get on with my work’
After the war, life was pretty gloomy in a severely rationed Britain and to escape some of this depression, Helen undertook a trip to visit friends living in what was then Zululand.
She was enthralled by the wide open spaces and the colourful variety of wild flowers she saw.
A second visit some years later confirmed her desire to live in South Africa and in 1963 she emigrated to take up a post as teacher in the pre-preparatory section of the Diocesan College, Bishops, in Cape Town.
On board ship on her journey to Cape Town, she met Marv Maytham Kidd, wife of the principal of Bishops College, who was the author of Wild flowers of the Cape Peninsula (Maytham Kidd 1950).
Their common interest in depicting the flowers they loved so well was an immediate bond which was to last throughout their lives.
According to Helen, it was Mary Maytham Kidd’s mentorship which set her on the path of botanical illustrator.
She continued teaching at Bishops until 1971 when, after a short period at St Cyprian’s School for Girls in Cape Town.
She moved to Grahamstown to take up a post as lecturer in the Grahamstown Teachers Training College. Here she taught until the College closed down in 1975.
All these years her art remained a favourite hobby and she earned her living teaching. Now,for the first time, this ‘second string’ would come in useful.
She applied for the post 130 Bothalia 36,1 (2006) of Display Artist at the Albany Museum.
Her qualifications in natural science and her ability as an artist made her eminently suited to the post and from 1971 to her retirement in 1984 she transformed gallery after gallery using her artistic talents in the widest possible way.
She retired in 1984 . In 1985 a set of six botanical paintings of trees which she made for the 1820 Settler’s Memorial Foundation, was awarded a prize in an American competition.
As she had never married, there was nothing that bound her to Grahamstown ,about a year after retiring, she decided to sell her house in Grahamstown and move to Port Elizabeth.
In 1986, her good friend, Dr C.J. Skead moved to a retirement complex also in Summerstrand near Helen’s home and their regular Sunday lunches were added to by day trips into the countryside.
Jack Skead was an all-round naturalist with an abiding curiosity in all things natural. He was fully aware of the paucity of written material on the Eastern Cape flora and it was his prompting and subsequent support that moved Helen to embark on her two-volume opus, Wildflowers of the Port Elizabeth area (1998, 1999).
Their earliest forays were into the coastal bush and fynbos areas to the south and west of Port Elizabeth. She completed the first 96 plates which were ordered in families according to the calendar months in which they flowered.
After unsuccessfully seeking sponsorship for publication from Kirstenbosch, she offered them to Oppenheimer’s Brenthurst Library and Press in the hope that they would publish them.
A visit in 1989 by the librarian representing Brenthurst confirmed their interest and although they did not see their way clear to publishing the collection in the near future, offered to buy the plates for their Africana collection. Helen agreed and sold the plates, hoping that they would eventually be published.
She and Jack then turned their sights to the dry, bushy country northeast of Port Elizabeth. By this time they had enlisted the help (and protection) of Pieter Coetzee, Director of the Western Districts Council of the Department of Nature Conservation, and William Massyn, manager of the Van Staden’s Wildflower Reserve, who helped them to penetrate areas inaccessible either because of bad roads or the proliferation of urban informal settlements.
In this area mainly van Stadens Wild Flower reserve, Helen completed 68 plates depicting 380 plants arranged in simple family order, and this time she was successful in getting a sponsor, Billiton Pic Mining Company, for publication.
The book was duly published in 1998 and after negotiating with Brenthurst Press, her previously completed 96 plates were loaned to her for publication of "Wildflowers of the Port Elizabeth area Gamtoos to Swartkops rivers ( The coastal bush and fynbos region)" in 1999. Together the two books, in more than 1 000 illustrations, cover at least 900 different plant species.
Helen identified most of these plants herself and made a number of trips to the Selmar Schonland Herbarium in Grahamstown.
Although her demarcated areas are relatively small, she collected intensively and many of the plants occur much wider afield. This was also the year in which she turned 80 and she admitted that she was looking forward to a rest.
One tends to forget that after the exertion of collecting, the work is far from over and upon return, the artist has to jump to it more or less immediately to capture the true colour and shape of the flowers before they fade.
After a short illness she died on the 7th of February 2005, leaving a rich legacy of floral art and having added handsomely to the documentation of the plants of the Eastern Cape.
Popular Port Elizabeth horticultural expert Gwen Skinner was born in Norfolk in Britain and moved to South Africa as a young girl and developed a keen interest in the local plant life. She was married to accountant Len Skinner. The couple had two sons.
She was involved in a number of organisations, but her first love -- the art of bonsai -- saw her start the Eastern Province Bonsai Society in September of 1969. A top-class amateur botanist, she began the Atalaya branch of the local Dendrological Society, of which she was chairman for a number of years.She was a founding member of the Wildlife Society and chairman of the EP Wild Flower Society and the Eastern Province Mountain Club of South Africa. She was honoured for her involvement with the Van Stadens Wild Flower Reserve (founded in 1951 by the Wild Flower Society). A bench in the reserve was named after her. Her friends described her as a "very independent, positive, strong personality".
A booklet “Van Staden’s River Wild Flower Reserve and Bird Sanctuary ” was published by the divisional Council of Port Elizabeth in 1970 which was written by Gwen as Chairman of the E.P. Wild Flower Society
Though most of the work was carried out over a period of many month by Mr. Karl Edwards, a member of the Field Work Section of the Wild Life Society of South Africa.
In the booklet is a mention of these animals that were noticed in the reserve in 1970: Blue Duiker , Bush Buck, Bushpig, Baboon , Porcupine,, Rock Dassie , Klipspringer, Mountain Reedbuck , Namaqua Rock Mouse, Cape Grysbuck, Grey Duiker , Oribi, Hare, Cape Grey Mongoose , Greater Spotted Genet , Cape Striped Field Mouse, Vlei Otomys , Grey Rat, Cape Mole Rat, Hottentot Golden Mole, Ratel, Lynx , Black Backed Jackal , Cape Clawless Otter.
In 1972 Gwen Skinner, a member of the Mountain Club, discovered and collected specimens of an unusual flowering bulb. These proved to be a new species endemic to the eastern Bavianskloof, and was named Cyrtanthus montanus in honour of the Mountain Club.
She was a member of the Western District Council Advisory Board. She was generous in sharing the extensive knowledge she gleaned from these numerous involvements. She contributed valued articles to the East Cape Naturalist magazine.
Her enthusiasm spurred many friends to see our natural vegetation with fresh eyes. She led parties on climbs and trails pointing out and identifying trees, flowers and shrubs.
On a trail in the Van Staden's Wild Flower Reserve she marked trees with their botanical names for the benefit of hikers.
Working together, Gwen and friend Mary Yates published a book 'Our Trees' on the trees of the Eastern Cape, and this is probably the best guide to trees for hikers on our trails.
Gwen died during 2003 at age of 87.