Cherry Blossoms

Text Bridget Hilton-Barber Production René Slee Photographs David Ross Cheerio is the most famous garden on the Mountain, as locals fondly call the Magoebaskloof area, and its spring show never fails to delight. Around September, an entire valley bursts into an Impressionistic blaze of colour as the azaleas flower and hundreds of exotic flowering trees, such as Japanese flowering cherries, dogwoods, crab apples and flowering peach trees, become covered in blossoms alongside them. The colours are dazzling – pink, peach, cerise, orange, scarlet, red, cream, purple, mauve – and the whole joyous affair is decadently reflected in a series of dams that form the centrepieces of the garden. Sheila Thompson, or Box as she was nicknamed, started Cheerio garden after the Second World War when she settled on the Mountain. Her parents were pioneers here, and her mother, Googoo Thompson, was a legend. Googoo’s lively adventures are told in the book From Woodbush to Wolkberg. Today Box’s niece, Jane Hillary, and her husband, Ed, are custodians of the garden. Box was already a dedicated gardener and botanist by the time she got to the Mountain. She brought with her a variety of plants, seeds and cuttings she had collected in her travels around the country as a signals officer during the war. Some plants, of course, failed hopelessly in the crisp mountain climate, while others, like the azaleas, simply flourished. Box began an azalea nursery, with unusual specimens such as the yellow Mollis azaleas, which she grew from imported seed. She also grew rhododendron, and planted crab apples and Siberian Irises, plants that were introduced to the region by Lady Camilla Phillips, wife of Sir Lionel Phillips who owned the nearby Broederstroom forestry. During the 1950s the Cheerio garden was visited by a Japanese gentleman who declared it the most beautiful azalea garden outside of Japan. In exchange for being sent seeds and cuttings for an indigenous blue flower that took his fancy, he sent Box six seeds from flowering cherry trees. These, it turned out, came from the Japanese Emperor’s very own garden – the visitor was, it transpired, the emperor’s physician. Box managed to germinate and grow all six seeds, two of which were the very scarce weeping spring cherry (Prunus  x pendula subhirtella), which grows wild in the forests of Japan and is prized in Japanese culture. And so began the hundreds of cherry trees for which the Cheerio garden has become known. Cheerio’s plants are largely exotic, apart from the distinctly African tree ferns that line the river course and banks. The slopes are terraced and forested with poplars and pin oaks, crab apples, elms and pines. Around the dams, the banks are thickly planted with azaleas and cherry trees, and dotted here and there with enormous camellias and hydrangeas, bog irises (that tend to flower on the same day) and decorative plants such as miniature purple irises, primulas, exotic gingers and the odd fox glove. A series of winding paths snakes in and around the garden, taking you through floral tunnels to look-out points and picnic spots shaded by the canopy of trees. From the tea garden, which overlooks the top dam, an oak-lined avenue leads up the mountain slopes towards pecan plantations and farmlands. Opposite the tea garden is a plaque at the water’s edge commemorating Box ‘who created the beauty in this valley between 1946 and 1994’. This poem to her is inscribed above the plaque: A kiss from the sun for pardon A song from the birds for mirth One is nearer God’s heart in a garden, Than anywhere else on earth. SPRING FEVER  •  The flowering at Cheerio garden (and its neighbours) is a highlight of the annual Spring Fair, when the quirky hamlet of Haenertsburg invites you to come and enjoy a little misty mountain madness ( •  The tea garden at Cheerio is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, from 9am to 5pm. Call Sarah Hillary on 083-355-0835; for more information call Jane Hillary on 083-263-7663. This article was originally featured in the September 2009 issue of House and Leisure.