Sunday, 15 July 2007

Kirstenbosch - Botanical Excellence

When the weather is wet and gloomy here and I can't out into the garden my thoughts immediately turn to South Africa, sunshine and the glorious landscape. One place I always visit there is Kirstenbosch, the country's premier botanical garden.

When Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 he left his farm - part of his Groot Schuur estate - to the nation. In 1913 the site became the first South African botanical garden devoted to indigenous plants: set on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the garden is in an incomparable position and is open an impressive 375 days a year.

Locals tend to use the garden as a park either for hiking up the eastern face of the mountain or for outdoor summer concerts and picnics. But all visitors enjoy the art exhibited by local artists and the sculptures in the garden and I believe bird-watching is quite a popular pastime.

Because of the wealth of the vegetation birds are everywhere in the gardens: guinea fowl and geese are always there and I've seen sugarbirds and sunbirds, bulbuls and even kestrels and kites. To find out from a real bird expert that's been to Kirstenbosch visit

But it's the planting that is the real star: there are 89 acres under cultivation and plants are grouped together according to type, all of them indigenous. This is not the norm for many botanical gardens, some of which choose to grow unusual plants from different countries and continents. So the ethos of Kirstenbosch - indigenous sustainable planting - was far ahead of its time.

Water from natural mountain springs feed the garden, several of which meet in the first area to be cleared: a small pond was built there and the surroundings were planted with, among other things, tree ferns and a collection of yellowwood trees.

One of the Western Cape's most famous group of plants are the native fine bush - fynbos - which are hard, small leaved shrubs that can withstand wind and even fire and these feature widely in the gardens.

Other species are grown according to habitat: by the main pond cycads grow, a fossil of the plant world; succulents that prosper in the Karoo are in the rockery. The medicinal garden has herbs and healing plants used throughout the Cape; a braille trail is planted with fragrant plants and the upper slopes show off the country's national flowers, proteas.

If you visit the website you can find out about all the species grown there and see the wonderful scenery for yourself. Although the website pictures beautiful scenes it is a fact that many indigenous plants are not showy - except the short lived carpets of one species - so don't expect to see the colourful, overflowing perennial and annual borders of western Europe at Kirstenbosch.

But what you will see are the individual species that make up a large proportion of our herbaceous beds: these are such a large part of our gardening heritage now that we quite overlook that so many come from South Africa.

Gladioli, asters, ericas and many members of the lily family hail from South Africa: red-hot poker, agapanthus, freesias, anemone blanda, pelargoniums, amaryllis and many, many more are all plants we associate with European or American gardens yet this flora is indigenous to the Cape.

In the West we are being introduced to those plants that have for centuries been valued and used by South Africans as herbal remedies and infusions. The most famous is probably a native fynbos, rooibos: redbush tea is caffeine free and has various medicianl benefits. Another is hoodia, a native plant that is now grown commercially as a drug.

So perhaps this is an example where we can learn from South Africa. From its inception Kirstenbosch has championed sustainable planting, been involved in research that develops beneficial products and many children regularly benefit from the educational programmes there: botanical excellence.


PS To see a photo of Rhodes farm circa 1900 visit, on The Story page scroll down to Excerpts and find it there.

Book Note: a small niche-market publishing company in Cape Town - Fernwood Press - produces some beautiful reference books on southern Africa's culture and natural history. There are wonderfully illustrated books about landscape and ecology (including, surprise, one entitled Kirstenbosch), the animal world, African art and artists and various memoirs.

Mailships of the Union-Castle Line is one of their publications that I should like to read because my family sailed regularly between Durban and Cape Town -and sometimes to England - on Union-Castle ships.

Visit to find out about their other publications.

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