Smuts, Hobhouse, a contessa and a tree Print
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Tuesday, 31 January 2017 22:15
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What does Jan Smuts, Anglo Boer War heroin, Emily Hobhouse, and an Italian contessa have in common? The answer lies in the magnolia tree that bears flowers to this day at the steps to the entrance of the Smuts House Museum.

Magnolia leaves and flowers

In his new book, ‘Wonderful Trees of Pretoria’, Eric Bolsmann writes that the tree was planted by Jan Smuts at his Doornkloof farm in Irene from a seed given to the British welfare campaigner, Emily Hobhouse, by Contessa Ludolf, who lived at the Palazzo Capponi in Florence.

Emily had a lively correspondence with Jan Smuts. In a letter dated 29 October 1911, she referred to the seed from the garden of the late-Gothic and early Renaissance-style Palazzo Capponi.

The magnolia tree at Smuts House Museum

“It is the Magnolia Grandiflora – my favourite of them – and I feel sure it would do well in Pretoria and if you give it a warm place it should also grow at Doornkloof, I think. Raised from seed the trees would be strong and hardy – do try it – do. You know the flowers, I suppose, large and white and powerfully sweet, if you touch them anywhere they turn brown. The leaf is also very handsome. They are a great ornament in Italian gardens . . .”

Palazzo Capponi in Florence

A plaque at the magnolia tree states, “The seed from which this magnolia tree grew was sent in 1911 from Rome to mrs Smuts by Emily Hobhouse.”

This information is repeated on a plaque at the Place of Quiet, erected by the Pretoria Metropolitan Municipality in 1999 on the Smuts House estate.

‘Wonderful Trees of Pretoria’ will be available from 1 April.

An undated portrait of Emily Hobhouse
Photo: Jennifer Hobhouse, Balme-collection