Walk among giants in Claremont’s Arderne Gardens in Cape Town
We were warned about Cape Town’s Arderne Gardens at school in the ’80s. ‘Stay away from the fence,’ our teachers said of the adjoining property, ‘and no shortcuts through the gardens, girls.’ Occasionally we were taken on outings into that shadowy, mysterious place, to play hide-and-seek among the shoulder-height roots of the towering ‘wedding tree’ and walk the overgrown paths that snaked between camellia bushes, our teachers patrolling for unsavoury loiterers. Then, as we discovered in senior school, if we leaned from the windows of the upstairs science lab, we could get a good look at the occasional flashers in raincoats who lingered at the fence of that neglected garden, hoping schoolgirls would see them: an education of sorts.
These days, this public space in Claremont has been lovingly restored to its original splendour by a group established in 2004, Friends of the Arderne Gardens (FOTAG), in partnership with Cape Town’s city council. Although the garden was declared a National Historical Monument in 1979, and the 37m-high Moreton Bay fig has long been a popular backdrop for wedding photographs, the place is still a well-kept secret. Just off the frenetic Main Road, it offers serene glades and lawns, Japanese-style ponds fed by a natural spring, an unusual collection of magnificent trees including redwoods and araucarias, and heirloom rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas.
Arderne Gardens was established in 1845 by an Englishman who came to the Cape to start a new life after the loss of his wife, son and business. Ralph Arderne remarried and bought for £740 a piece of land, part of the old Stellenberg estate, and built a house on the property, now the site of Herschel Preparatory School. Here he planned to create a garden ‘with trees and plants from as many parts of the world as I can’.
Word went out to trading ships calling into Cape Town that Mr Arderne was anxious to acquire young plants or seeds from other countries. For one of his first seedlings, a tiny Norfolk Island pine from Australia, he paid £5 (a sizeable sum) and planted it in 1847. Most Norfolk Island pines in Cape Town are thought to be its descendants. Arderne swapped seeds and bulbs with Sir Thomas Hooker of Kew Gardens over the years, and helped to establish the Cape Town Botanical Gardens in the old Company’s Garden in 1848. He became a world-renowned plant collector, and his private gardens became famous.
When Arderne died in 1885, the garden was inherited by his eldest son Henry, a lawyer whose buttonhole was often adorned with a ‘Pink Pearl’ rhododendron. Henry travelled widely to collect plants and seeds for the 4.5ha garden, and in 1926, nine years after his death, the City of Cape Town purchased it to save it from subdivision.
As the sign at the entrance proclaims, ‘This special garden is the only one of its kind in the world’, thanks to its collection of rare and exotic trees, many of them over a century old. ‘It’s the only garden with so many trees of this size and age in the southern hemisphere,’ says Arderne Gardens horticulturalist Lisa Conradie. As she explains, trees often grow bigger here than in their natural habitat, such as the 32m-high Queensland kauri pine (Agathis robusta), a tree known for its beautiful timber, and the 40m-tall Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), an example this large not seen in its native Mediterranean region.
The garden is home to six of South Africa’s 76 Champion Trees – individual specimens given national recognition and protection for their age, biological attributes and heritage significance: the Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla), the Aleppo pine and Queensland kauri; a Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), a Turkish oak (Quercus cerris) and a great cork oak (Quercus suber) that is reminiscent of a Japanese painting with its gnarled, spreading branches coated in moss and lichen – a champion tree for climbing, if you ask a visiting child.
Equally noteworthy are the collections of Gondwanan trees, species from the ancient supercontinent Gondwana before southern hemisphere landmasses including Africa, South America and Australia split away (araucarias, podocarpuses and cycads) and the recently planted trees from the Green Legacy Hiroshima initiative, which distributes seeds and saplings of trees that survived the 1945 atomic bomb to botanical gardens worldwide: a Kurogane holly (Ilex rotunda), 15 Japanese persimmon saplings (Diospyros kaki) and a Ginkgo biloba, all grown from seed by Kirstenbosch horticulturalist Adam Harrower.
International botanists have assisted FOTAG in its ongoing project to label all the trees in the garden, including arborist and author Thomas Pakenham of Meetings with Remarkable Trees renown. With the aim of developing the space into a special southern-hemisphere arboretum, new and replacement trees were planted in a 2016 ceremony to provide the next generation of the giants seen in the garden. Among the rare species planted were a Californian Giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and a Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), described as a fossil until a living tree was discovered clinging to life in 1945 in a remote Szechuan valley in China.
Today, senior schoolgirls run along Arderne Gardens’ paths during cross-country training, and the school’s youngest pupils, including my daughter, celebrate spring with a picnic under its venerable trees. The Messrs Arderne must be smiling down.