Imagine a garden, over 500 hectares in size and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A garden which scores an average of 4.8 out of 5 across some 894 Google reviews and a garden situated in one of the most florally diverse regions in the world. It’s a pretty good bet I couldn’t stay away for long.
And so it was with huge excitement that I walked through the gates of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. For years I had grown the beautiful plants of South Africa, but never had I seen them flourishing in their homeland. I was quite bursting with excitement.
It turns out, South Africans are pretty excited about their flora, too. In a way that I’ve never seen elsewhere; not in the UK, or Australia or indeed anywhere I’ve experienced.
Admittedly, I may not have run into a truly random subset of the South African population, but everywhere I went, locals proudly told me about their ‘floral kingdom’, no less. Indigenous plants were almost a part of their national identity, with a huge sense of connection to the land.
It turns out, there are six floral kingdoms of the world, including: the Boreal kingdom, which covers 42% of the earth’s land mass and the majority of the northern hemisphere; The Australian kingdom, covering 8%; and the Cape Floral kingdom, at the very southern tip of South Africa, covering just 0.04%.
But it’s amazing what you can pack into 0.04% of the world. It certainly felt like we’d seen more flowers in that little section of planet than we had seen in the rest of it put together. And the really special thing is that 69% of those plants are endemic, that is they only grow (of their own accord) in that one, tiny region.
Kirstenbosch hold the claim of being the first botanic garden in the world to be devoted to a country’s indigenous flora. A few mature specimens of non-indigenous trees planted before 1913 still exist today, but overall this garden simply sings South Africa.
Whilst the country comprises everything from arid deserts to cool alpine regions, the dominant vegetation in the Cape Floral kingdom is fynbos (Afrikaans for ‘fine-leaved plants’). We’ll look at this a little more closely when we get into the National Parks and Nature Reserves, but there’s a wonderful book, ‘Field Guide to Fynbos’, by John Manning, which stayed very close to me during our trip, that I will touch on here.
Manning divides up the families of plants found in fynbos into eight groups: the first four being monocotyledons (parallel-venation, often grass-like leaves…I trust you remember your school Biology?); the second, dicotyledons; with further categorisations based on flower type (points for those who can figure these out).
I find it fascinating to see the plants within these groupings. You can start to see how you might identify discovered plants on your walkabouts, you can understand which plants might be found in similar conditions to each other and you can make connections between plant types that help you learn about and remember them.
It also forms an interesting list to provide a real feel of the true breadth of South African plants. To start to realise just how many plants in your garden might have originated here.
So, here’s the list, showing the most familiar families within each group:
Group 1 – Restio, Sedge
Group 2 – Arum
Group 3 – Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Aloe, Hyacinth, Colchicum
Group 4 – Iris, Orchid
Group 5 – Protea, Euphorbia, Crassula, Geranium, Oxalis, Erica
Group 6 – Violet, Melianthus, Polygala, Pea
Group 7 – Rose, Carrot, Daisy
Group 8 – Mint, Scabious
Whilst there is no question of the beauty and elegant drama of indigenous South African plants, Kirstenbosch is far more than a pleasant collection of plants. As with so much of the Western Cape region, it is lifted from the ordinary by the most incredible backdrop: fiercely steep mountains, clothed to half way with deep green fynbos.
It’s hard to describe just how beautiful these mountains are: the enormity of the atmosphere created at their feet. Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, recognised the beauty of this spot, purchasing the then ‘Kirsten’s Forest’ in 1895.
He planted the impossibly narrow avenue of camphor trees that still exists today, along what was then the main road to Cape Town. On his death in 1902, not only did he bequeath funds for the Rhodes Scholarship, but also the Kirstenbosch estate to the South African Government.
It was a Professor of Botany, Harold Pearson, however, who is largely credited with the vision and initial establishment of the botanical garden and his grave is marked under a large cedar of Lebanon in the garden foothills of Table Mountain.
Today, the garden is full of life. Full of people from every age group, smiling, laughing, picnicking. It’s such an incredibly happy place. Extensive lawns omitting killjoy ‘keep off’ signs make the garden ultra usable and with 36 hectares of cultivated grounds, there’s ample room for everyone.
With a soft, generous feel to the layout, a magical atmosphere, dramatic backdrop and the most exquisite and naturally complementary set of plants, is it any surprise that few score this garden any less than a five out of five?