A Life Less OrdinaryDecember 13th, 2019
Horticulturalist, pruning maestro and, in our view, a botanical alchemist, our beloved Anton Roux recently celebrated a milestone birthday. At 80 years young, his wisdom and enthusiasm makes him one of Babylonstoren’s most valued gardeners.
Wednesdays and Thursdays at Babylonstoren are when you’ll find our exotic grower of berries and deciduous fruits, propagator extraordinaire and pruning master Anton Roux – affectionately known to all as Oom Anton – working his magic in the gardens. Having been raised as the son of a farmer on one of Grabouw’s oldest fruit farms, the soil, sun and rain are in his veins. He recalls with photographic clarity the first things he ever grew and harvested as a child: ‘My father gave me my own patch of earth when I was five. I planted beans and tomatoes and remember the excitement of looking after them until they were ready to pick and eat’.
This deep connection to the land and the thrill of watching seeds become living, food-bearing plants led to a remarkable career; one that has taken him around the world and back again and has spanned everything from farm manager to senior positions at several of South Africa’s biggest agricultural co-ops as well as, in his later years, a private consultant to the fruit-growing industry, farmers and estate owners – all appreciative of his vast knowledge and instinct.
‘There are so many things I admire about Oom Anton. His excitement and commitment to plant a young tree and patiently prune it over many years into the desired shape. His great knowledge of fruits. Anton’s willingness to learn and try new things. His fitness of mind and body. His practical skill and experience in pruning trees. His enthusiasm to share his experience with everybody… He works until the job is done. I see in Anton the joy and fruits of working in the garden. It keeps the mind and body healthy. We are all in awe of him and feel blessed to have his knowledge passed on to us.’
_ Liesl van der Walt, Head Gardener, Babylonstoren
Not one for the sedentary life, at the age of sixty Oom Anton ‘retired’. Which in his vocabulary translated to starting his own nursery specialising in exotic plants – in particular fruits – such as persimmons, unknown varieties of passion fruits and berries, custard apples, medlars, tamarillos (tree tomatoes) as well as sourcing special requests for his keen clients. He also had the time to revisit one of his biggest passions: honing his skills and experimenting with innovative techniques in the grafting of root stock onto existing plants to develop new fruit types, as well as the noble quest of reviving old-fashioned and historic fruit varieties that had been all but lost.
It was this arc in the road that, a few years on, brought him to the gardens at Babylonstoren, first as a consultant (Oom Anton trekked to Upington to bring us our wonderful pistachio trees) and now as our resident sage who is responsible for one of our most exciting on-going projects: bringing heritage fruits – in particular pears and apples – back to life as an act of preservation as well as a view to cultivation for 21st century palates.
Thanks to Oom Anton’s expertise, patience (so, so much patience), a spot of ‘trial and error’ and a dusting of mystery, Babylonstoren is now home to historic species such as the Witte Wijn Appel (recorded in the diary of the Dutch governor to the Cape as the first apple to have been picked in the Company’s Gardens in the 17th century); the Flower Of Kent (otherwise known as the apple that sparked Isaac’s Newton’s gravity theory); the White Winter Pearmain dessert apple (an heirloom variety first described in the 1850s but widely thought of as the oldest English apple variety); Dunn’s Seedling (another heritage variety dating to Australia in the 1890s); and our very special Saffraan (Saffron) Pear, an old Dutch variety grown from a graft taken by Oom Anton from the mother tree located in the Company’s Garden that was planted in Van Riebeek’s time.
‘One of the most exciting moments for me’, he says animatedly, ‘was a year or two ago when Ernst (van Jaarsveld, Babylonstoren’s succulent expert) and myself hiked up Table Mountain to take a cutting from an old apple tree that we suspect was planted around 250 years ago in Simon van der Stel’s time. A short while later it was sadly and mysteriously cut down, but I’ve managed to propagate it. It’s very young and still in quarantine but the first blossoms have appeared so we’ll soon know what species it is’.
Rambling up Table Mountain at an age when most of us would be in Zimmer frames? We’ve got a sneaking suspicion that on his travels to more exotic climes, Oom Anton discovered the fountain of youth and took a large glug. So what is his secret? ‘My passion is my work and my hobby. It’s my calling. If you have a career that is your passion, then you can retire but still go on doing the thing you love the most. I think that’s what keeps you from feeling and behaving your age. Also staying active, being outdoors as much as you can. The sun, the sky, the wind, the rain, the plants… they feed your soul’. By the twinkle in his eye, a physique honed by a lifetime in orchards and gardens and an abundance of energy so dynamic that his young protégés often struggle to keep pace with him, we reckon these are words to live by.
Happy 80th year Oom Anton. Here’s to you, our favourite evergreen.