Olive Hilliard obituary

Other lives: South African botanist who eventually made her home in Scotland

My former colleague Olive Hilliard, who has died aged 97, was a botanist from South Africa who moved to Scotland in her later years to work on research at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

She was born in Durban, South Africa, to Marjorie (nee Brown), a buyer for the Payne Bros department store in the city, and David Hillary, who managed a sugar estate. After attending Convent high school in Durban she studied botany at the University of Natal, staying there after graduation to teach science in the medical school (1954-62). She married Jack Hilliard in 1948 but the relationship ended in divorce.

In 1963 Olive became herbarium curator at the university’s Pietermaritzburg campus and was eventually made associate research professor there in 1981. During her time at the university she wrote a book, Compositae in Natal (1977), which described the flowering plants of the Asteraceae, or Compositae, family in the region.

Her PhD on the genus Streptocarpus led to a 40-year partnership with the Edinburgh botanist Bill Burtt, whom she visited regularly in Scotland. On her retirement in 1986 she moved permanently to the UK so they could continue working on their shared passion for taxonomic research at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh where, for 20 years, Olive’s matching snowy white hair and lab coat were a kenspeckle feature of the herbarium.

Olive’s solo work produced a series of scientific papers and monographs on the family Scrophlariaceae in addition to the joint work with Bill on the family Gesneriaceae. Their most beautiful book was a monograph on the wand flowers, the iridaceous genus Dierama, exquisitely illustrated by Olive’s friend Auriol Batten.

A series of expeditions that Olive made with Bill to explore the flora of the southern face of the Drakensberg escarpment in South Africa was summarised in their book Botany of the Southern Natal Drakensberg (1987). Riding ponies, staying in caves and rock shelters, the pair faced not only climatic and topographical, but zoological, hazards – including leopards and stone-pelting baboons.

For her contributions to British horticulture, Olive received the Veitch Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1992.

After many years working together, she and Bill married in 2004. He died in 2008.

Henry Noltie

The GuardianTramp

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