Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town

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.

Eucomis at Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

Eucomis like you’ve never seen before at Kirstenbosch

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Delicate, almost meadow-like planting at Kirstenbosch

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Stunning textures and forms give a real South African feel

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

So much colour and height from so many plants at Kirstenbosch

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%.

Laportia grossa stinging nettle at Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

Laportia grossa stinging nettle: for some reason it quite amused me that since the recent addition of a sign informing of its danger, more people have been stung than ever before!

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 National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Helichrysum, Gazania, Erica: so many familiar garden plants…

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Closely related to Telopea, Leucospermum have got to have some of the most incredible flowers of all

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Abundant landscaping around the Kirstenbosch restaurant

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).

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Boulders dug up during the formation of the garden have been used to create naturalistic landscaping

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia juncea) sits alongside a dramatic red (‘Rhode Island Red’?) Eucomis

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.

Yellowwood at Kirstenbosch

Podocarpus latifolius with a beautifully contorted trunk. Cathy Jenkins, our wonderful volunteer guide, explained that the yellowwood is one of very few fynbos trees of any stature

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

Cyathea dregei at Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

The similarities between South African and Australian plants, linking back to the time of Gondwana, did not go unnoticed

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.

Teddy Bear's Rock, Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden

Teddy Bear’s Rock: you can just make out the ears, centre left

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.

A view back to the suburbs from the foothills of Table Mountain at Kirstenbosch

A view back to the suburbs from the Kirstenbosch Boomslang (tree snake) canopy walkway in the foothills of Table Mountain

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Foreground colour (Helichrysum), mid ground architectural form (yellowwoods) and background majesty (Table Mountain) all add up to something incredibly special

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.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Getting to know the wildlife: I loved the spotty guinea fowl!

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.

Colonel's Bird Bath, where the spring water bubbles up at a steady 18 degrees all year round

Colonel’s Bird Bath, where the spring water bubbles up at a steady 18 degrees right the year round

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?

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town

Whether you live in England or Australia–or anywhere in between–it’s not far really: you know you want to visit!

The view from our gorgeous room at Klein Bosheuwel Guest House

And a top tip for when you do. This is the view from our gorgeous room at Klein Bosheuwel Guest House, a stone’s throw from Kirstenbosch. It’s the only place I’ve ever stayed where I’ve been treated like royalty (without regal prices). Thank you so much, Margie and Tim; we’ll be back.

30 thoughts on “Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town

  1. rusty duck says:

    It’s more beautiful even than I imagined. Is it the stunning combination of the plants or the backdrop? Probably both. It all looks so lush too, considering the drought. And the turkeys, don’t let’s forget them!
    Did you get to see the table without its cloth?

    • jannaschreier says:

      We got to see the table sans cloth and with a million different cloths too: big ones, small ones, airy ones, dense ones, dark ones, light ones… Interestingly, Cape Town talks about the weather, not in terms of temperature or rainfall, but in terms of wind speed, so the clouds are changing by the second. And lush gardens in drought plays oh so nicely to my ‘right plant, right plant’ philosophy!

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    Stunning gardens Janna. And the views wow!!!! I love all the planting and as you say many are recognisable as popular garden plants (in Australia some of these plants love us a little too much unfortunately). However I got stuck on the 8 groupings though – interesting – the first 4 groups make sense as they have similarities (within in each group) as far as flower and plant form go (botanically speaking). The groups that follow after 4, I can’t see the rationale in the groupings as the plants differ so morphologically. Oxalis and Protea for example – couldn’t imagine two plant more different. Grouping the Asteraceae, Rosaceae, Apiaceae families together (also so different in form). Also Fabaceae, Melianthacaea and Violaceae (no similarities botanically speaking). I guess you would need to read the book to understand the rationale behind this. it did get me stuck more on that then your other text so I need to go back and read it again – thought provoking Janna!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, I am glad it wasn’t just me bamboozled by thoughts of Oxalis next to Protea (and I thought you’d be up for the challenge)! There is a three/four step key and the commonality is: Dicot – More (or equal number of) stamens than petals – Superior ovary. And for daisies, roses and carrots it’s: Dicot – More (or equal number of) stamens than petals – Inferior ovary – Two-lipped flower. Admittedly, not necessarily what us gardeners are admiring on first glance! And on the subject of Oxalis, I also learnt that they have very recently found two previously undiscovered species in the wild. I did tell them not to find too many more; I’m not sure the beauty:nuisance ratio of Oxalis is all that favourable!

      • Adriana Fraser says:

        Still think those groupings are drawing a long bow – mint flowers (which is placed in a different ‘group’ for example have two distinct lips and that is a way we get students to recognise them. In roses it varies with some having a superior ovary and some prone types having inferior (maybe there are only prone types in the bos). I could go on but won’t bore you with it. As I said I am reading a small section out of context. Agreed re the oxalis have it for the first time ever – good reason to sell!

        • jannaschreier says:

          Assuming the key is 100% robust (based on, as you say, a different subset of species within each family to Australia) what it does do is provide a very succinct identification process. The one I used to key Australian natives had many more levels and complications. Perhaps it’s not quite so good at grouping plants that are intuitively similar!

  3. Suzanne says:

    Gosh Janna, this and your previous post are, to coin a phrase, ‘doing my head in’. The gardens, plants and surrounding countryside are extremely beautiful [perhaps helped a little by your great photos?]. As you say, there are places that are very Australian-esk although, mostly, not at all West Aussie. It’s the plants that are causing my dilemma; they are so familiar, but not! Some are, as you point out, very closely related to our flora, many are sort after garden plants and others are monstrous environmental weeds. My dilemma is that I’m torn between love and hate; envy and adversion. It’s very confusing! What Australia really needs to import from the Cape is a big dose of pride in one’s own natural flora. By the time we in WA work out that our south-west is a biological hot spot there will be little left. Yes, perhaps there is more love than hate!

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m very sorry to be doing your head in, Suzanne. Not the intention. Although perhaps you got me back with your photo of a huge basket of Australian natives for $50 (although only on the envy and love dimensions)! I think it’s going to start looking a little more West Aussie as we get into the Nature Reserves, so I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts then (if you haven’t stopped reading!). As fantastic as the gardens were, it was the natural vegetation that really blew my mind. Happy Australia Day, by the way!

      • Suzanne says:

        Now Janna, I love your posts; why ever would I stop reading? Re your “right plant, right place” philosophy, I couldn’t agree more. I bought my bounty yesterday in 42 degree heat and have started planting knowing they will be fine. I walked around the garden last night and everything was quite happy. I haven’t watered today at all (its too hot!) but will do the bird baths and shade house tonight. A Calytric fraseri in a pot on my HOT brick terrace in full sun all day is happily displaying its beautiful bright pink star flowers.
        I look forward to seeing your Reserve posts even though the Gazania and Watsonia will cause minor anxiety attacks. South African plants are brilliant in blistering heat…a bit too much so at times.
        BTW we got the same score and happy pseudo-Aussie to you also.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Your Calytrix fraseri sounds wonderful. It gives me so much more joy to see a plant thriving in, rather than battling with, its conditions. By the way, you can relax on the Gazania front but you may need to brace yourself for one post with ‘just a few’ Watsonia – sorry!

  4. Margaret says:

    What beautiful gardens Janna. I think your spotted turkeys are Guinea Fowl. I may be wrong. Love seeing them wandering the gardens as they love to do searching for critters to eat. Great for pest control.
    The garden and the setting is something to enjoy. Thank you for posting. And yes I couldn’t agree more with Suzanne as a fellow West Aussie.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks for your comment, Margaret, and for putting me straight on the guinea fowl. I’m not quite so good on the fauna (although I’m also hoping my Cape friend, Diana Studer, is going to put me straight on the flora, if I do slip up). I do hope you’ll drop by to see more posts about the natural vegetation in the area. It sounds like you know the area so it would be great to hear your thoughts on that. I definitely think the nature reserves are more West than East, where as Kirstenbosch is probably more East than West, in an Austrailan sense. But it is all so exciting!

  5. germac4 says:

    Thanks Janna for a tour around lovely Kirstenbosch …surely one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a Botanical Garden. I love all the wild flowers borders & rocks & water features… Everything looks so healthy & green, they must have a special allocation for water. I spent my last year of school in Cape Town so this brought back memories of those amazing cloud covered mountains, & all the plants & trees … Many like Australia varieties.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It’s certainly the most beautiful setting for a garden I’ve ever seen, even beating Sydney harbour (although I think there is so much untapped potential for the Sydney Botanic Gardens). You are also clearly going to love seeing the wildflowers in the nature reserves – did you take much notice of them when you were at school there, I wonder? I know I appreciate these things at least ten fold more now, than I did as a child. I can vouch for the fact that they do irrigate the gardens, but clearly they manage this carefully. When we walked through them at 7.30am (we were keen!) we spent more time dodging the rotating sprinklers than we did admiring the plants!

      • germac4 says:

        No I didn’t appreciate wild flowers then, but my mother talked about them all the time. I recently heard a talk on Botanic gardens all over the world, and Kirstenbosch was mentioned as one of the top ten to see.

  6. Deirdre says:

    Thanks for this wonderful blog. It looks fabulous. I have often mused that many African plants look somehow ‘right’ with Australian plants though I am shamefully ignornant of our native flora; about to be rectified as I am about to embark on a small native garden around a holiday house situated basically within a national park in northern Sydney!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Ooh, that’s super exciting, Deirdre! I can see lots of trips to Muogamarra Nature Reserve coming up for you! I can’t wait to see some photos of your new garden as it develops. How lovely to have the opportunity to start your third very different type of garden – you have the best of all worlds!

  7. Piet Krynauw says:

    Thanks Janna for your positive comments about your South African visit. We shared your blog with clients who visited Kirstenbosch yesterday. Their feedback: “Not a single word of your comment is an exaggeration !”

    • jannaschreier says:

      And thank you Piet (and Andries) for making our visit so very, very special. We had such a wonderful mix of activities in our itinerary and you really did go that extra mile to make sure everything was perfect. I’m envious of your clients that are there right now, although glad they concur about the magic of Kirstenbosch! I get quite passionate about gardens but I do aim to portray them with absolute integrity, so it’s lovely to hear that others are in agreement.

  8. Catherine says:

    Stunning photos, as always. They show how much meatier Sth African plants are compared to our Australian east coast natives. That makes it so much easier to create our euro-centric idea of a garden when plants have foliage bulk like the various Proteaceae – and look at the ‘weight’ of those yellowwoods against a eucalypt. Our trees have wonderful silhouettes but, like many of our native species, are almost transparent. Combine the shrub bulk with the upward spires of colour, also uncommon in Australian east coast natives, and you can see why people here prefer to garden with other country’s natives rather than their own.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, they are ‘meatier’ plants, no question. It’s interesting though, how much Kirstenbosch follows your ‘euro-centric’ idea, particularly around foliage bulk, compared with the overall foliage bulk in the natural landscape immediately adjacent to the garden (and that of other nature reserves in the area). I think you have hit the nail on the head in that it’s easier to ‘like’ (and use) South African natives in our gardens–so influenced across The Commonwealth by English history–in a way that feels familiar. But I’m still more excited about the development of truly Australian gardens than of any other gardens in the world! There is just so much potential for unbelievable beauty, reflecting the outstanding beauty of untouched Australia.

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