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Tribute to Jan van Bergen

25 December 1937 - 1 February 2023

The green industries pay tribute to Jan van Bergen (85), who passed away on Wednesday 1 February after a bout of pneumonia. A legendary grower, Jan made an indelible impact on South Africa’s horticultural industry during his lifetime.

J55 Jan van BergenCamellia expert Jan van Bergen, with Anticipation (Williamsii hybrid camellia, New Zealand).
Photo credit: Vergelegen Estate.

Jan van Bergen graduated from the Royal Horticultural High School in Boskoop (just east of The Hague) in The Netherlands in May 1957. A month later, at age 19, he emigrated to South Africa.

From 1957 to 1959, he worked as a horticulturalist with the Department of Public Works in Pretoria.

From 1960 to 1966, he managed the gardens of senior civil servants in the Transvaal Provincial Administration. During this time, he studied and received his National Diploma in Parks and Recreation Administration.

In 1966, he moved to KwaZulu-Natal’s provincial administration, managing all landscaping for provincial buildings and schools from a base in Pietermaritzburg.

In 1968 he became the landscape planning officer for the National Transport Commission, planting trees, landscaping and managing the re-vegetation of disturbed areas along national roads throughout South Africa.  “I am a tree man”, he recalled. “Planting trees along the national roads of South Africa was enormously satisfying. I think trees are fantastic and I have travelled the world to see them”, he added.

Van Bergen was also proud to assist in setting up the Re-vegetation Institute at North-West (Potchefstroom) University with Professor Koos van Wyk – a pioneering step at the time.

Boskoop Nursery

In 1972, Jan bought a five morgen (4,5 hectare) small holding on Lynnwood Road, The Willows. At the time, the property was located on the peri-urban eastern fringe of Pretoria.  “The property had wonderful deep soils and was covered in tough kweek grass (Cynodon dactylon). We dug over everything by hand and planted 300 conifer cuttings”, Jan said.

In 1980, he left the civil service and Boskoop Nursery – named after his hometown in The Netherlands – was launched. Jan became a full-time nurseryman and landscape planner.

From his base at Boskoop Nursery, Jan is best remembered for his specialist growing of conifers, and later camellias, magnolias, azaleas, Japanese maples, and cymbidiums.

For nearly three decades, his choice of plants and flair for propagation influenced a generation of gardeners and landscapers. Jan bought camellia stock from KZN’s Dunrobin Nurseries, imported seedlings, grew plants from seed and named cultivars after his wife, daughters, and granddaughters. “You wait seven, eight years or even longer to make sure you have a hardy flowering plant”, he said in an interview.

Waves of horticultural students, landscapers and gardeners visited Boskoop Nursery as it evolved into an awe-inspiring arboretum of 30-year-old, established conifers, maples, camellias, magnolias and azaleas.

By the 1990s, Boskoop Nursery was annually importing over 10 000 plants, was an important source of grafted maples, and was growing over 60 varieties of magnolias and azaleas. A passion for orchids – particularly cymbidiums – meant that Boskoop’s orchid greenhouse would house up to 40 000 orchids at any one time.

Boskoop delivered over 100 000 plants to garden centres across the country each year. During July and August each year, the flowering mother stock became a major attraction for gardeners, tourists, and landscapers. To this end, Boskoop Nursery influenced the very nature of garden landscapes across Gauteng - and later - the country for over three decades.

In 2004, with Pretoria’s housing developments moving eastward, Jan and Yetti van Bergen sold Boskoop Nursery and retired to Zeverwacht Estate, outside Stellenbosch.

Camellia Collection @ Vergelegen

Jan van Bergen leaves an extraordinary camellia legacy.  Jan was 13 years old when he saw his first camellia and it became a lifelong passion.  Jan and his wife Yetti were regular delegates to international camellia conferences, and in 1993, Jan brought the International Camellia Conference to South Africa.

The van Bergen Camellia Collection was initially established at Vergelegen Estate in Somerset West, Cape Town in 1995.  Jan donated several plants of each of the cultivars he had imported into South Africa, as well as new propagated selections. More than 700 plants were gifted to Vergelegen Estate to create a show garden that remains open to the public to this day.

The van Bergen Camellia Collection added to the original Barlow camellia plantings that consisted of classic, pre-1940s Camellia japonica cultivars, many of which were 5m high mature shrubs. Most of these early cultivars were planted by Cynthia Barlow, after her family bought Vergelegen in June 1941 from the estate of the late Sir Lionel and Lady Phillips. The Barlow family sold Vergelegen to the present owners, Anglo American in October 1987.

In March 2010, the International Camellia Society Congress in Kurume, Japan voted to award Vergelegen’s collection of 1000 camellias the honour of becoming one of 39 camellia gardens recognised as Camellia Gardens of Excellence worldwide. Today, Vergelegen contains over 550 camellia cultivars from as far afield as France, Japan, the Americas, and South Africa.

Gold Medal

In May 2010, SANA presented Jan van Bergen with their highest accolade, a SANA Gold Medal at their annual convention. The honour acknowledged his decades of service to both the horticultural industry and plant breeding in South Africa.

Jan van Bergen was a passionate, colourful character - regarded by many as ‘one of the Greats in South African Horticulture’. He will be missed.

SANA offers their sincere condolences to Jan’s wife, Yetti, and his two daughters - Rianne and Kira – and their families – at this sad time.

Kay Montgomery


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