I’d heard about him, I’d read about him and, yesterday, I finally got to meet him. What an inspirational human being is Ebie Hull — baker, teacher, plant propagator, botanical explorer and botanical artist! He is also a man with a profound social conscience: he is forever trying to find ways to uplift the less fortunate.
Ebie is the chief propagator at the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens. If he is not to be found in the Gardens proper, then he is probably out trudging the foothills of the Kogelberg, ever on the lookout for new plants to propagate and introduce into his beloved workplace. Or he may be across the road at the Thomases. Robbie is his mentor when it comes to plant propagation and Vicki is his inspiration and guide in the intricacies of botanical drawing. For Ebie is also an extraordinarily talented botanical artist in his own right and his work in this specialised discipline is fast gaining recognition.
Ebie grew up in Kleinmond. He attended primary school there and went on to do his secondary schooling at Genadendal, [Genadendal is the fascinating Overberg town that, in 1738, was established as a Moravian Mission to serve the Khoi population of the area. It was the very first Mission in South Africa.] On completing his Matric, Ebbie returned to Kleinmond in search of work. The only job available to him was in the bakery section of the Seven-Eleven. Being Ebie, he soon rose through the ranks and was trained as a Master Baker. But his primary interest had always been the environment and the fynbos growing in the area. So, when he was offered a job as a groundsman at the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, he jumped at the opportunity, even though his job description at that time was no more challenging than pulling out weeds. He immediately set himself a daunting goal – within one year he would learn both the common and scientific names of every plant that was growing in the Gardens.
His efforts did not go unnoticed. One day, he was approached by the then Curator of Harold Porter, who offered him a chance to work in the nursery. This would allow him to attain his dream of becoming a horticulturist. And it was in the nursery where his interest in propagation was born. His first love had always been the Proteaceae family and it was inevitable that he would meet up with Robbie Thomas. He attributes his skills as a propagator to the time he spent working with Robbie and he speaks with great enthusiasm of their efforts with the different species of Mimetes and, of course, with the exquisite Orothamnus zeyheri, the Marsh Rose.
“It’s the freedom you have in the veld,” he explains. “I’m in the veld. I’m on my own. I’m amongst the birds and the plants. That’s what it’s all about.”
From his early childhood, Ebie had been keen on drawing. [He used to paint pictures on the walls of the family home, much to his mother’s horror.] He sold his first painting while still at school – a depiction of the Moravian Church at Genadendal. This was on display at a celebration at the Mission and a visitor offered him R600 for it. R300 went to the Church Fund and R300 into his pocket! Could this have been the very first step on a journey to ultimate fame and fortune?
Ebie treasures the time he spends on the mountain. “It’s the freedom you have in the veld,” he explains. “I’m in the veld. I’m on my own. I’m amongst the birds and the plants. That’s what it’s all about.” It is on these forays into the natural environment, in search of interesting plants, that his botanical drawing had its roots. His habit was always first to draw a plant, with careful attention to detail, and only then to take cuttings and/or seed for later propagation. He showed one of his artistic efforts to Vicki Thomas. She immediately spotted his aptitude for botanical drawing and spent many hours with him honing his drawing skills and teaching him how to mix water colours to best recreate the exact hues and the three-dimensionality of the different parts of a particular plant.
Ebbie paints “Centenary Gold”
His interest in botanical drawing grew and grew and the quality of his work improved proportionately. He now often assists Vicki in her teaching workshops and is always highly rated by the students.
2013 was when the one-hundred year partnership between the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the Botanical Society of South Africa was marked. Part of the celebration was an exhibition of the work of twelve botanical artists in South Africa, to be selected from a large number of entrants. At the last minute, Ebie had to withdraw from the competition. His father had just died and he was unable to complete his drawings. [Vicki remarked that he would definitely have made the cut if circumstances had allowed, so high was the standard of his work.] In spite of this setback, he still made his mark at the opening of the celebrations. Strelitzia juncea, “Centenary Gold”, was a new, vibrant yellow cultivar that had been developed over decades of careful selective breeding. It was chosen as the symbolic emblem of theevent. Before the unveiling of a living example of “Centenary Gold”, Ebie’s depiction thereof was unveiled with great ceremony. A photograph of him painting this beautiful new strelitzia appeared in the special centenary issue of the Veld & Flora of June 2013.
Ebbie has, on occasion, ventured further afield than the Overberg area in his searches for new and interesting plants. He has accompanied Ernst van Jaarsveld, the eminent plant explorer and collector, on a couple of expeditions. He has been assured by van Jaarsveld that, should they find a new species, Ebie will be the one to do the scientific drawings!
Strelitzia juncea, “Centenary Gold”, Ebie’s completed painting of the cultivar that was celebrated at the centennial event.
I have mentioned that Ebie feels a strong need to “give back”. Coming, as he does, from humble beginnings, he received inspiration from Peter Slingsby’s ECCO Club [Ecological Club for Children Organisation], which he joined when he was eight years’ old and left only when he started secondary school. He knows just how important it is for children to be given the chance to truly experience their environment; it was as a member of ECCO that he first developed his love for our rich botanical heritage. Ebie lives in one of the new RDP houses on the mountainside as you enter Kleinmond from the Betty’s Bay side.
He does not have the land to plant a garden but, ever creative, he has begun a project whereby his garden wall will take the place of a conventional garden. In time it will be completely covered in paintings of indigenous plants and birds and he will use this to teach the neighbourhood kids about our remarkable fynbos.
Ebie is very keen to start a course for talented local children where they will learn about the local plants and be taught how to draw them. We were throwing ideas about and came up with one that could work, be a lot of fun and have a meaningful impact on the lives of the kids. Having learnt basic drawing skills, they would then, each month, identify the plants in the Gardens that were flowering. Their task would be to paint them on a coffee mug, along with the name of the month. A kind potter would fire these creations. At the end of a year, each child would have produced a set of twelve mugs that depicted the flowers in bloom over the course of a year. An opportunity would be found to display and sell the sets. Proceeds would be split half to the child and half to be returned to the pot, to fund the next project. More of this later . . .