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Emerald Forest

Text Gill Cullinan Garden Editor René Slee Photographs Michael Hall A rustic garden, citrus walk, vineyard, rose garden and topiary garden are among the delights awaiting visitors to the garden of The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel in Constantia, Cape Town. You could explore its 3.5 hectares all day and still find inspiration, but in the sweltering summer heat, the forest walk is the place to be. Local horticulturist Jean Almon, who has guided the development of the garden for the past 21 years, offers to take me on a tour. We pass huge hydrangea bushes and enter the fern walk, where glorious green moss covers a brick path leading through a luxuriant forest of camellias and ferns. ‘This part of the garden was always dark, and nothing grew here,’ says Jean. ‘Two years ago I started the fern walk after getting the idea from a friend who inherited a fernery.’ Jean has planted tree ferns along the perimeter wall, which in time will block out all sight of the neighbouring road. Masses of orange and patches of yellow clivias thrive in the shade. The fern walk leads to a row of magnificent camphor trees dating back to the time of Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of what was then the Cape Colony. ‘This was a large property called Klaasenbosch,’ says Jean. ‘Simon van der Stel gave it to his doctor, who, in 1683, built a thatched house, a wagon house, a dairy and a couple of cellars. Van der Stel had passed a law stipulating that landowners had to plant a certain number of trees, so the doctor planted an avenue of Dutch oaks leading to his house. When someone arrived from the East with a gift of camphor trees, he planted them between the oaks.’ Those camphor trees still stand, with moss growing up and over their huge roots. Jean points out the stumps of some of the Dutch oaks. ‘Aren’t they wonderful?’ she enthuses. ‘Prince Charles has a stumpery at Highgrove, and I think it’s the best part of his garden.’ While the avenue of camphors is clearly visible, the driveway has been moved. ‘Of the eight remaining camphors, one was dead when we arrived,’ says Jean, ‘but I like it.’ Nearby, an oak log, too heavy to move, has been used as a backdrop to a line of pretty streptocarpus. We continue on our way, under a fallen oak that forms a perfect archway. ‘One day, at noon, it just fell,’ she says. ‘Strangely, there wasn’t a breath of wind that day.’ She has planted masses of bluebells under the oak, and beds of plectranthus line the path. ‘I love it when the wind blows the plectranthus and you see the purple undersides of the leaves,’ she says. ‘Of course the camphors have been affected by the wind, but I don’t mind that.’ Jean holds aside a fern leaf as we follow some steps made out of railway sleepers. ‘There was a pond here,’ says Jean, ‘but the poplars sent out strong roots that damaged it, so we turned it into a bog garden.’ The poplars she’s referring to make a wonderful forest, which has its own surprises. ‘In spring there are no leaves on the poplars, so we’ve planted daffodils and bluebells. And this year the belladonna lilies have been absolutely beautiful.’ Over the years the property changed hands many times before the Spilhaus family bought it, demolished the doctor’s thatched house and built the existing homestead, which they named Hohenort. In 1948, when the family divided the estate, the cellars became a private house and then eventually the Cellars Country House Hotel. Current owner Liz McGrath bought the hotel in 1990, and the neighbouring property four years later, and renamed it The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel. Liz commissioned landscape designer Beth Still to design the garden, which until then had been largely ignored. Beth, in turn, asked Jean to implement her plan. ‘This is the most beautiful piece of land,’ says Jean, who continues working as we walk, clipping off dead fern fronds as we go. As we emerge from the forest, guests having tea greet Jean and comment on the changes that have been made to the garden since their last visit. ‘Most of the visitors come in the summer,’ says Jean, ‘so it’s lovely to have the shady walks for them to enjoy.’ Jean Almon gives guided tours of the garden every Tuesday from 10.30am. The cost is R60, which includes tea or coffee and the famous Cellars scones. The Cellars-Hohenort Hotel, 021-794-2137, cellars-hohenort.com. This article was originally published in the April 2011 issue of House and Leisure.