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?
30 thoughts on “Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town”
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?
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
Why am I stuck in traffic in Adelaide while reading this? If only my bus could magically take me to Cape Town right away! 🙂
If you do manage to track down the magic bus, do send the timetable on to me. I’ll be looking up the schedule for Cape Town AND Adelaide (I so love your city)!
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.
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!
I will be viewing this again, when not in a rush. I love Eucomis and Agapanthus, so you had me at the first few photos. Lovely.
It really is lovely! Everyone was having their photo taken in front of the Eucomis – I’ve never seen anything like them before. It was as though they were on steroids!
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.
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!
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.
It’s got to be in the top ten in the world, I think. Although perhaps I’d better do a little more travelling, just to be sure!
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!
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!
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 !”
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.
Wow, amazing! Was this a recent visit?
Oh, so amazing, Marian. Yes, we were in Cape Town earlier this month. And I want to go back already! I think you should start some garden tours there…in fact you could team up with Piet (above) who runs a travel company. I love it when a plan starts to form!
Sounds like a fabulous idea!
Just shout if you’d like an introduction.
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.
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.