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Africa's Eden

Text Catriona Ross Photographs Micky Hoyle If position, position, position is everything, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was blessed from the start. Imagine young Professor Harold Pearson, former assistant director at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in a horse-drawn cart one sweltering February afternoon in 1911, site-shopping for a new Cape botanical garden. As described by Brian Huntley in Kirstenbosch: The Most Beautiful Garden in Africa, when Pearson and his two companions saw Kirstenbosch’s entrance with its steep, forested slope up to Castle Rock, Pearson exclaimed, ‘This is the place’. A century later, over 2 000 visitors experience the same goosebump-inducing sight from the main entrance daily. Part of the Cape Floristic Region UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kirstenbosch’s 36-hectare cultivated garden sits at the focal point on the world map of biodiversity hotspots, and has over 7 000 species in cultivation, many of them rare and threatened species. Kirstenbosch may be one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations, but locals also flock to see the botanical feast – the rippling carpets of spring flowers, from orange, yellow and white Namaqua marigolds (Ursinia speciosa, U. anthemoides and Arctotis hirsuta) to the glowing purples, oranges and pinks of the Vygies (Lampranthus and Drosanthemum spp); the mass plantings of proteas; the pelargonium collections; vivid orange clivias; and banks of strelitzias with light inflaming their bird-of-paradise heads – or to explore the wilder parts of this 528-hectare estate. By the late 1880s, Van Riebeeck’s Company’s Garden was in a state of neglect, and leading citizens and botanists began lobbying for a botanical garden. Pearson stepped in, passionate and driven to create a garden with laboratories, to study and preserve indigenous flora: a world first. The derelict farm Kirstenbosch, bequeathed by Cecil John Rhodes to ‘the united peoples of South Africa’, was declared a botanical garden on 1 July 1913 with Pearson as director. Donors stocked it with plants, a nursery was established, and the garden’s development began with the Cycad Amphitheatre and The Dell, a magical shady place of trickling water and stepping stones, trees such as the African holly (Ilex mitis), rockeries of tree ferns, flowering forest shrubs and shade-loving Streptocarpus and Plectranthus. The Dell’s bird-shaped pool, filled by a natural spring, was probably built in 1811 by Deputy Colonial Secretary Colonel Christopher Bird, who briefly owned Kirstenbosch. Between 1915 and 1920, roads and paths were built to link The Dell to the cycads, the koppie and the rest of the garden. The garden continues to care for the future of South Africa’s tiny yet rich floral kingdom, using as few pesticides and herbicides as possible. Home to the largest remaining natural population of the endangered silver tree (Leucadendron argenteum), Kirstenbosch planted thousands of seedlings on the slopes of Table Mountain this year. The Albany cycad, now on the brink of extinction in its natural habitat near Grahamstown, was collected for Kirstenbosch in 1913; suckers and seedlings sold to gardeners and growers over the years take the pressure off the few remaining wild plants. Exceptional plants are cultivated here, such as the vibrant yellow ‘Mandela’s Gold Strelitzia (Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’), originally collected in 1936 by FW Thorns, the second curator, and painstakingly selected and handpollinated over 20 years by John Winter, curator from 1979 to 1999. From 1990 to 2006 director Brian Huntley built up infrastructure at Kirstenbosch, raised funds and invested in education, visitor experience and horticultural facilities. Boosted by outdoor concerts, the garden has operated at a profit and received no further government subsidy since 2006 – a rarity among botanical gardens worldwide. In its centenary year, Kirstenbosch was awarded its 33rd gold medal at the 2013 Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show. At home, centenary celebrations include the construction of an elevated Tree Canopy Walkway, known as the ‘boomslang’; a self-guided Kirstenbosch Heritage Trail; and a focus on ‘centenarian’ trees, such as the Natal wild banana (Strelitzia nicolai) just inside the Visitors’ Centre entrance and the white gardenia (Gardenia thunbergia) on the main lawn, both planted in 1913, and the great Outeniqua yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) at the entrance to The Dell (1914). Here, history mingles with the new. You may explore the Useful Plants Garden, the Garden of Weeds and Garden of Extinction – and minutes later walk beneath the remnants of Rhodes’ Camphor Avenue (Cinnamomum camphora), planted to shade his rides to and from his Groote Schuur residence, or climb the sprawling survivors of Van Riebeek’s wild almond hedge (Brabejum stellatifolium), planted in 1660 as a security barrier. But that’s history, and Kirstenbosch today is open to all. Whether it’s theemerald flash of a sunbird among proteas, or a picnic enjoyed on a lawn scattered with guinea fowl, we all take a piece of it away in our private inner garden. Pearson must be smiling. For more information, visit This article was originally featured in the December 2013 issue of House and Leisure.