Helderberg Nature Reserve, South Africa

There are times when gardens are gardens and nature is nature. And there are times when the boundaries blur. When they do I’m often at my most content in life.

Protea cynaroides flower, delightfully out of season for us!

Protea cynaroides, delightfully and considerately flowering out of season for our visit

I’m clearly happy to have any type of greenery around me and truly value the breadth of garden styles and wilderness that abounds. But there’s something very special about gardens that have an element of wilderness about them and wilderness that has an element of garden.

Track through Helderberg Nature Reserve

Approaching the Helderberg Nature Reserve walking tracks

Naturalistic gardens are very on-trend right now. It’s funny how we all like the same things at the same time. We are sheep, not just on clothes fashion and interior design fashion, but even on long-term undertakings such as gardens. We see wildlife gardens and prairie planting, meadows and drought-tolerant xeroscapes all over the place: intensified, stylised versions of the natural world.

The spectacular shapes and forms of both plants and mountains at Helderberg Nature Reserve

The spectacular shapes and forms of both plants and mountains at Helderberg Nature Reserve

But it’s not so often we see wilderness that is enchantingly close to the look of a garden. That’s not to say the most rustic, messy or overgrown areas of wilderness are not breathtaking in their own right. But it really does stop me in my tracks when I see nature that looks like it’s been planted.

These restios are very architectural, especially as seen against the bright blue sky

These restios are very architectural, especially as seen against the bright blue African sky

I guess partly, I’m in awe. Because it’s usually so much better than when it’s done deliberately by man. But it’s also a tremendous learning opportunity. By studying it in detail, we can ascertain just why it works so well and what we can take away and apply to our gardens.

Standley Chasm in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Australia. Picture perfect wilderness landscaping

Standley Chasm in the West MacDonnell Ranges, Australia: picture perfect wilderness landscaping

I was struck by just how much of the Western Cape’s nature reserves looked ‘landscaped’. Only once before had I seen anything quite so perfectly arranged by nature, quite so finely balanced between harmony and contrast, on a macro rather than micro scale. At the West MacDonnell Ranges, just outside Alice Springs in central Australia, a scene of rocks and water, grasses and trees is firmly etched in my mind.

This scene at Helderberg Nature Reserve seem to shout South Africa

This scene at Helderberg Nature Reserve seems to shout South Africa

But Helderberg Nature Reserve, framed by dramatic cliff faces on one side and the deep blue water of False Bay stretching away on the other (shown in the header photo), was equally memorable. Consisting of 403 hectares of ‘Cape Winelands Shale Fynbos’, it has few trees or succulents, but Protea and geophytes form a stunning matrix of plant life, the odd angulate tortoise wandering past (at a surprising speed as soon as you want to take a photo), adding to its charm.

Angulate tortoise in the Western Cape

Angulate tortoise, such a surprise for me to see scurrying across the path, but so common in the Western Cape

Fires are a big thing for fynbos. The Helderberg website states:

“Fire is one of the characteristic features of the Cape Floral Kingdom.  A fire gets rid of all the ‘deadwood’ and affords the current seedbank a chance to germinate and a new, healthy and uncluttered veld starts a new cycle of growth.”

Fire and regeneration at Helderberg Nature Reserve

Fire and regeneration at Helderberg Nature Reserve

The management team carry out regular controlled burns, a section at at time, every 12-20 years. Protea take four years before they commence flowering and then half their seeds are eaten by caterpillars. Only about 10% of seeds are viable, so 12-20 years is needed to ensure regeneration. It’s not a problem if burn records are lost, you can calculate the age of Protea by sight. Flowers form on the end of each stem once a year, with the stem subsequently forking. Count the forks from top to bottom and add four and ta-da, there’s its age!

Phylica pubescens is like velvet to touch. It reminded me very much of Adenanthos and was equally addictive to touch

Phylica pubescens is like soft velvet. It reminded me very much of Adenanthos and was equally compelling to touch

I was quite distressed to hear that the week after we visited, a large, unplanned fire had swept through the reserve. Those wonderful memories I had of it, quite literally gone up in smoke. But the lovely Diana Studer, a relatively local blogger, reassured me that many bulbs were already peeping up through the soil, ready for another natural cycle.

Helderberg Nature Research, Somerset West

The dramatic line of the Hottentot mountains, so called due to the sound of the click language spoken by the local Khoikhoi people, when explaining what was over the mountains

Whilst we were there, all stages of the cycle were visible and all equally breath-taking. Admiring the vegetation at every stage, side by side, really highlighted the true wonder of nature.

Ten year old growth at Helderberg Nature Reserve

Ten year old growth at Helderberg Nature Reserve

For me, this garden-like wilderness was a real lesson in plant combining, demonstrating all kinds of principles used in contemporary design. Surviving plants at any one stage were all of similar heights, just as today, design has moved on from the escalating heights of the traditional, Gertrude Jekyll, herbaceous border.

Searsia angustifolia had reshooted after an ecological burn. The fruit shape give a clue to its plant family...the mango family!

Searsia angustifolia had reshooted after an ecological burn. The fruit shape gives a clue to its plant family, although I couldn’t guess it…can you?

The plant combinations were also very harmonious, with similar foliage colours and lots of repetition resulting in a distinctly cohesive picture. And yet there was so much detail, you could (and we did!) stand on the spot for twenty minutes and still notice new plants, new textures, new flowers and forms all at your feet. It didn’t have the predictability or low interest that ultra harmonious combinations often do.

Despite receiving an average of just 568mm rainfall a year, you can see such lush, thick growth

Despite receiving an average of just 568mm of rainfall a year, you can see such lush, thick growth in front of the vineyards, beyond

And it was lush. So lush. I was wilting after just an hour in the sun, but these plants were so healthy, so full and so abundant. Even in the area of recent burn, there were so many species packed into each tiny patch of soil.

Pops of Leucadendron colour brighten the landscape even when not in flower

Pops of Leucadendron colour brighten the new landscape even when not in flower

It’s hard not to come away from a place like the Helderberg Nature Reserve without wanting to plant indigenous species yourself. I was warmed to hear that natives have been on the increase in Cape gardens over the past twenty years, aided by the development of new cultivars and an increasing awareness of water and fire issues. We were told the nurseries and conservation departments were working together to educate gardeners.

Soft, red, downy new growth makes you want to reach out and touch this Leucadendron

Tactile, soft, red, downy, new growth is also very hard to keep your hands off!

Next week, I’ll be writing about the Vergelegen Wine Estate gardens, walking distance from Helderberg, which I sought out after reading about in my best-gardens-of-the-world book, ‘The Gardener’s Garden’. I’ll be very keen to know how you react to the wilderness and then to its neighbouring cultivated garden. Do you agree that a blend is most exciting of all?

These dried Protea heads remind me so much of old man Banksia (B. serrata)

These dried Protea heads remind me so much of old man Banksia (B. serrata)

9 thoughts on “Helderberg Nature Reserve, South Africa

  1. rusty duck says:

    I do agree. Absolutely loved Standley Chasm (another great suggestion of yours!) and would add the road verges on Kangaroo Island with their exquisite combinations that I couldn’t believe were not planted by human hand. I came away from Australia so inspired by what I could do with the very natural environment I have, albeit with very different plants! I can perfectly understand how South Africa would have the same effect.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Standley Chasm is just amazing how it seems to have very deliberate clumps of planting with absolutely zero ‘weediness’ in between. Such a special spot; I’m so pleased you got there. I do find it surprising that we don’t seem to have more ‘enhanced nature’ plantings in UK gardens. I’m sure we will see more and more of this over the coming years and I actually find the idea of finding my own style of this–before it becomes common place–super exciting!

  2. Adriana says:

    We can never really replicate the beautiful plant combinations we find in nature nor the stunning rockeries and water features – we can only TRY to copy. What a wonderful ‘garden’ Janna.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m sure the fact that they are natural is all part of their attraction to us and that’s definitely a factor we can’t replicate in our gardens! As you say, though, it doesn’t stop us being inspired by it.

  3. germac4 says:

    I love posts about the Cape … Everywhere you go the landscape is stunning and those glorious mountains ever present. We drove through Little Karoo .. Wished we could spend more time there… Very similar landscape to many of your photos.
    Totally agree that the very best places are when nature & gardens blurr & merge.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Gosh, I would absolutely love to see the Karoo. I’ve never visited anywhere with vegetation anything like the photos I’ve seen of it. We are already trying to plan a trip to South Africa/southern Africa next winter but we are so spoilt for choice of areas, we’re not sure where to start. If you have any suggestions (other than Little Karoo) it would be great to hear!

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