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MGS Tour of Gardens of the Cape - Stellenbosch and Cape Town, South Africa 31 October to 9 November 2016

A Visit to South Africa: Part 1. Botanical Gardens
by Valerie Whittington, reprinted from TMG No. 88 April 2016

MGS Tour of Gardens of the Cape: The Programme
by Angela Durnford, MGS Branch Head in Italy

A Visit to South Africa: Part 1 – Botanical Gardens

by Valerie Whittington
photographs by Valerie Whittington

Our trip to South Africa in November 2016 exceeded all expectations. Everyone I knew who had already visited the country had told me how beautiful it was with its stunning countryside and flowers. I hadn’t, however, expected the sheer scale of the mountains. Twenty-four gardens were visited; it is impossible to write about them all and do them justice within the scope of this article. Thus I shall reflect on aspects of what we saw, sifted a little in my mind since we returned.

My thoughts divide the gardens into different categories. Some, like The Company’s Garden in Cape Town, provide the historical context of gardening in the Cape. The botanical gardens of Stellenbosch, Kirstenbosch and Harry Porter also have historical importance but with a strong educative mission. Two more recent community initiatives, Green Point BiodiversityShowcase Garden and Soil for Life, made a strong impression on me and I’ll spend some time recounting aspects of these visits. Many of the private gardens have been in the families for many years (generations) and also have a strong historical aspect as regards both the settlers and garden style. Lastly, some of the people we met through the visits, whether owner, manager or gardener, made a lasting impression and have influenced my selection.

The Company’s Garden
We walked through the city’s roots and its history when we visited The Company’s Garden in the heart of Cape Town. It is an oasis of shade and greenery, surrounded by the city’s most important concentration of old buildings and museums. Established by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652, just weeks after his arrival in the Cape, to provide water and fresh produce to passing Dutch ships that plied the spice trade route between Europe and the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, it takes its name from the Dutch East India Company. By the 18th century, what was created as a vegetable patch had been transformed into a world-renowned botanical garden spread over 18 hectares which exported bulbs and other produce to Europe.

The Rose Garden, planted in 1929, is the site of the Cape’s first wine-producing vine and a source of rose water in the Dutch era; it contains many rose varieties, set out in a radial pattern. The Palm Grove was beautiful as, were many trees such as the African tulip tree, tree aloes, a huge Ficus elastica, a stunning Grevillea robusta in bloom and – the oldest tree in the garden – a 300-year-old pear, still looking good.

Table Mountain as a backdrop to The Company's Garden

This is a historic Cape Dutch farm dating back to 1692 which boasts one of the best preserved werfs (farmyards) in the Cape.

It was inspired by The Company’s Garden and also provided more much-needed produce for passing ships. The buildings have been added to but are very much in keeping with the original farm buildings.

We were shown around in two groups enthusiastically led by Liesl, the head gardener, or by Gundula who was a volunteer at Sparoza for three years from 2003.

In a beautiful setting, its magnificent gardens are laid out over eight acres. They are divided into 15 sections comprising vines, fruit, berries, indigenous plants, fragrant lawns, a prickly pear maze, a clivia tunnel, a collection of cycads, a newly introduced rockery and many trees of historical and botanical importance. A secluded path runs along the stream where thousands of clivias flower in spring, though these had finished by the time we visited: it must be a spectacular sight. A special ‘puff adder’ shade tunnel winds its way along with tree trunk stands designed to display the flowering clivias for visitors to enjoy at close quarters.

Everything is grown organically with extensive use of compost as mulch. I learned a great deal from Liesl. Her dry gardening philosophy is very much in keeping with MGS principles and aims to support greater understanding of gardening through education and respect for the environment, for example developing a waterwise approach and gardening organically. Bird boxes have been erected in appropriate places including those for barn owls. Seats in a quiet corner were modelled on weaver bird nests.

Seats in a quiet corner were modelled on weaver bird nests

Students are offered 3- or 12-month programmes here which include experience with fruit and vegetables as well as with succulents and other collections. There is a good website ( and informative notices in various sections of the garden. They even have their own free Babylonstoren app which connects to a library of gardening information and useful tips as well as giving direct access to top South African gardening specialists ‘to turn you into a better gardener’

The garden boasts a plethora of trees of historical and botanical importance. Liesl explained that the Cape had few large trees as a result of the early settlers chopping them down for building, so that many European species such as oaks were planted. The Yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius) in particular has become rare as the few remaining trees are old. It is also the national tree of South Africa. All podocarpus are now a protected species here. Forty-nine different plant species indigenous to South Africa grow in Babylonstoren and are much valued.

Water channels run throughout the garden providing irrigation. Many different groundcovers, both mineral and vegetable, are used on paths and as mulch, for example abalone shells, peach stones and different lawn alternatives; Roman and Cape chamomile (watered every two days), thyme and snowdrift also make fragrant lawns following a tradition from the Middle Ages. This is not only practical but also looks very attractive.

Tecoma capensis and Portulacaria make unusual but effective hedging. Vegetables are grown with companion planting to deter pests. Ducks wander on a rotational basis in different areas to eat snails. Espaliers act as attractive and functional dividers between crops of apples, pears and quince. A 70-year-old guava is still fruiting, as well as a tree reputed to derive from a cutting from ‘Newton’s apple tree’.

What impressed me most here was the high quality of all the plants and sections; they were gardened with pride preserving tradition, but were also entrepreneurial, such as in the sale of high-quality vegetables and other products to ensure that the garden can continue to flourish. I liked the use of different mulches, the experimentation with several different varieties of the same vegetables and the shade houses which were both functional and of architectural interest. Babylonstoren represents for me a commitment to its historical roots within a spirt of moving forward and experimentation, encompassing its business initiatives through the shops and restaurant for example and educating the wider public. I found this visit uplifting and the mountain backdrop magnificent.

The Harold Porter National Botanical Garden
This was my first introduction to fynbos vegetation which is unique to the Cape. It is a beautiful, secluded garden set between mountain and sea in the heart of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, right at the centre of the coastal fynbos area where the flora is richest. It consists of ten hectares of cultivated fynbos garden and 190 hectares of pristine natural fynbos encompassing mountain slopes with wind-clipped heathland, deep gorges with relic forests, flats and marshes with restios, sedges and bulbs as well as dunes adjacent to the beach with specialised salt-adapted plants. The garden is renowned for its waterfalls and amber pools. The main fynbos families of proteas, ericas and restios are present as well as other important families such as irises, daisies and orchids.

Backed by Leopard’s Gorge, this was a magical place in its all-encompassing natural environment and in its commitment to informing the visitor about the richness of the abundant flora. Leopards (at least six we were told) still live in the area, as evidenced by footprints and ripped bark on some trees.

Leopard's Gorge, Harold Porter Botanical Garden

This was an excellent introduction to South African flora growing in large clumps or swathes, for example an iris looking rather like an Asphodeline lutea and Dietes bicolor with its unusual flowers and attractive shape, growing from rhizomes that produce clumps of slender arching leaves and flat, creamy-white flowers and black markings that last only one day. We saw banks of Dietes grandiflora in many places – even though these flowers also last but a day, new flowers open over an extended period. I would love to have some in my garden. Erica mammosa, a shrub with lovely pink flowers was being pollinated by sunbirds – apparently the shape of the flowers attracts these wonderful birds. Watsonias and lachenalias lit up the garden with their colourful spread. We were to see these plants used in many of the gardens we visited, but here they were in their natural habitat.

Helpful notices explain different areas including the ‘fynbos experiment’, a-wait-and-see section where different soil types are being used to see what will grow there, for example on limestone. Being based on an old riverbed, the garden has a high water table with the result that few proteas grow in the higher areas but lower down we did see stunning Leucospermum(the PincushionProtea).This is a genus containing about 50 species of evergreen flowering plants native to South Africa, where they occupy a variety of habitats including scrubland and mountain slopes. Their tough, leathery leaves are arranged spirally, with amazing and unusual flowers produced in dense inflorescences also having large numbers of similar and striking carpels. The yellow Leucospermum cuneiforme, the small fragrant white flowers of the Gordon Bay pin cushion, Leucospermum bolusii, Protea obtusifolia (the limestone sugar bush) and Protea scolymocephala (the thistle protea) particularly caught my attention. I found these plants remarkable because they are so different from what I am used to in the Mediterranean.

Protea scolymocephala, the thistle protea

This excellent visit set the scene for many of our experiences to come.

Stellenbosch Botanical Garden
This was very different to the gardens described above. Situated in the historical centre of Stellenbosch, it is the oldest university botanical garden in South Africa and is an important teaching and research institute. This compact garden of four acres houses an enormous diversity of plants, both indigenous to South Africa and exotics from all over the world. We were welcomed by the dynamic garden curator Martin Smit (ex Kew Gardens and Longwood Gardens, Philadelphia). Martin has written well-respected books on succulents and stone plants of which there is an excellent collection here in the greenhouse and garden.

Our guide was Wim Tijmens – a former curator himself and, in his own words, ‘a better story-teller’. He was indeed amazingly knowledgeable. The Stellenbosch Botanical Garden is particularly notable for its collection of fynbos plants and dry-country succulents, mainly from Namibia. The most remarkable example of these in the greenhouse is a Welwitschia mirabilis, one of the rarest plants in the world: the trunk of this one is reputed to be 1,000 years old. With leaves that capture moisture from sea fogs and long taproots that search out any underground water, it is well adapted to the harsh arid environments of the Namib Desert where it is found, although recent evidence suggests cause for concern as populations may be under threat from a fungal pathogen. Wim pointed out the female which bears green cones. The male plant actually looked dead.

Welwitschia mirabili, one of the rarest plants in the world

We learned that South Africa has the largest number of cycads in the world. In Kirstenbosch they are now tagged because many have been stolen to sell as they have become a popular garden plant. We saw fine Modjadji cycad (Encephalartos transvenosus) specimens here, known as the Rain Queen. Being gymnosperms, these plants produce male and female cones on separate plants. In the past, the pith from the stem of cycads was removed, then enclosed in an animal skin, fermented and ground into a meal which was used to make bread – hence their Afrikaans name of broodboom.

Cycad in Stellenbosch Botanical Garden

Other notable plants seen here included rooibos, famous for its tea. Rooibos tea or red tea is a medicinal herbal beverage obtained from Aspalathus linearis, a bush plant found in South Africa. We were told that rooibos is not a true tea, but a herb. The fermented tea is red in colour. A beautiful old butterspoon tree (Cunonia capensis) made a good home for Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and other bromeliads. Gardenia thunbergia, a beautiful flowering shrub with strong heavily perfumed flowers and decorative fruits, is endemic to South Africa. Several of us were interested in its large woody seeds; Wim enjoyed explaining that in the wild, if not eaten by large browsers or elephants, they remain on the tree for years, in fact he implied that they had to ‘pass through an elephant to germinate’.

This was a fascinating place to visit and the space available here barely allows me to do it justice. I have merely given a taste of our experience, enhanced by a delightful guide and a few unusual specimens.

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens
Kirstenbosch lived up to its reputation as ‘the most beautiful garden in Africa and one of the great botanic gardens of the world’. It was established in 1913 to protect the immense floral wealth of the Western Cape, Cecil Rhodes, once the landowner, having bequeathed the garden to the nation in 1902.

We spent most of the day being guided through its many gardens: succulents, arboretum, fynbos, ericas, buchus (South African shrubs, the leaves of which are used in traditional medicine), cycads and pelargoniums, with a special visit to the Bulb House with over 1000 bulbs (only 200 grow in the garden). Lunch was served in the Kirstenbosch Tea Room, followed by two further visits to the Cape Peninsula Garden and the Conservatory.

The lower slopes are planted with lush indigenous flora and blend into a natural cover of fynbos and forest at higher altitudes, accessible by a network of footpaths. It is the only botanical garden planted entirely with indigenous plants thanks to the incredible floral kingdom of the Cape. Covering only 0.04% of the earth’s surface, the Cape is said to have 75% of the world’s endemic plants in spite of having ‘the poorest soil in the world’ with wind, sun and no summer water. Succulents are of course adept at storing water and the 1,400 bulb species disappear underground once they have flowered. The 42 hectares of the garden become over 300 when the mountain is included. Our guides explained that no municipal water is used, only that coming from the mountain which is stored in the garden’s own reservoir.

The Kirstenbosch nursery experiments to find out which plants will survive here in poor soil with no nutrients or phosphates because of the dam that was built for Cape Town. As a result, we learned that trees in the Western Cape can grow only alongside rivers and streams. In the park, where there is the highest rainfall, there are 35 endemic trees but there are 1,400 tree species in the Cape Floral Kingdom region, including as far along the coast as Port Elizabeth. We walked the famous Camphor Tree Walk. When Rhodes bought all the (park) land he had trees planted from all over the British Empire, many chosen for the visit by Queen Victoria.

The curator of the Conservatory gave us an introduction to the extensive and famous Bulb House, considered the best in the world. The Cape has an extraordinary diversity of bulbs with a significant proportion belonging to the Hyacinthaceae and Amaryllidaceae families, as well as lachenalias and orchids. Given a staggering 9,500 species to choose from, they select the most beautiful and/or rare to cultivate.  Most had finished flowering by the time of our visit but we could appreciate the scale of cultivation. All are hand-pollinated in an insect-free environment to avoid hybridisation to be grown from seed or are propagated by division. It was interesting to learn that it is more important to control humidity rather than temperature in the Bulb House. Only 200 of these bulbs can be grown in the garden, either because of the rainfall or because of the problem of porcupines digging them up. The South African species we saw included ixias, gladioli, freesias and eucomis, Cyrtanthus (orange), Clivia miniata (both orange and yellow varieties) and C. mirabilis (from winter rainfall areas).

The glass-roofed conservatory boasts several desert plants from the arid regions of southern Africa. At the centre a spectacular baobab, the largest succulent in the world, towers over the other plants.

The oldest part of the garden is the Cycad Garden and the Dell, a very attractive section with large trees, a stream and a pool set below a natural amphitheatre planted with ancient cycads that evolved over 150-200 million years ago. There are 38 varieties here, many very old; one of them is reputed to be a thousand years old. We were told that in their natural habitat they are the most threatened plant on earth. Plant collection has become a problem with 23 stolen from Kirstenbosch itself in the last few years. This means data lost as well as the plants themselves.

Another problem was highlighted by the guides: the stinkwood tree (Ocotea bullata) with its hard, dark wood is often planted with the yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), the National Tree of South Africa. It is special because of its traditional use in magic. These trees are endangered because robbers ring them to steal the precious bark used by traditional healers. The bark has to be taken from a living tree, resulting in the tree’s early death. There are just three in Kirstenbosch and they are much prized.

The Tree Canopy Walkway, located in the arboretum area of the garden, close to the Cycad Garden at one end and the concert lawn at the other, was amazing. Built to commemorate the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’s 100th anniversary in 2013, the Boomslang is a 130m canopy walkway discreetly located in the tree tops of this famous garden’s arboretum. It offers striking views of the garden, the mountain and beyond. Its ingenious design makes it a sinuous structure that winds its way through the trees – like the tree snake after which it is named. The outer steel frame resembles the ribcage of a snake enclosing the wooden bridge and looks a bit like a roller-coaster ride for pedestrians. It was a very special experience walking within and above 400 or so trees.

Boomslang walkway, Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens

The footpath through the Fynbos Walk has to be among my favourite sections in the park. It took us through the colourful fynbos vegetation with many wonderful proteas such as the King protea, Protea cynaroides.

King protea, Protea cynaroides

The pinwheel flowers of Leucospermum cuneiforme were in bloom, attracting several birds especially the long-tailed Cape sugarbird.

Leucospermum cuneiforme

Here we also saw beautiful Strelitzia reginae including the Yellow Bird of Paradise, Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’ – a rare, yellow form of the well-known orange Bird of Paradise. This spectacular cultivar, named after Nelson Mandela, has flaring yellow sepals and blue petals reminiscent of a crested tropical bird.

Few gardens can match the sheer grandeur of the park’s setting against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. It came as no surprise to learn that the Cape Floristic Region, including Kirstenbosch, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

MGS Tour of Gardens of the Cape: The Programme

Italian Branch Head Angela Durnford who organised the eight-day tour writes:

My family has lived in the Cape since 1984 and after one year as a resident there I have been visiting ever since, latterly overwintering each year. Since becoming Branch Head for Italy in 2012 I have hoped to put a tour together to share this magnificent place with fellow MGS members – larger-than-life landscapes, vast oceans, fine hospitality, a fascinating history and above all its gorgeous gardens and extraordinary flora.  I have been helped by so very many enthusiastic gardeners, horticulturalists and botanists here in the Cape. 

Cape View

Our Bases

  • 4 nights in Stellenbosch at Kleine Zalze Lodge – nestled among vineyards in the heartland of the Winelands with spectacular views over the mountains of Stellenbosch we will shall have fantastically comfortable, large rooms to rest and recharge from our busy schedule. 
  • 5 nights in Cape Town at The Vineyard Hotel – a beautiful and historic hotel set in marvellous gardens with views up to Table Mountain.

The Programme

  • 8 days
  • 2 hotels
  • 25 beautiful gardens – botanical, historic, modern, indigenous, organic and experimental, each tour led by the garden owner or by expert botanists and horticulturalists.
  • 2 talks by leading lights in the Cape botanical community on water-wisdom in the Cape and climate change in the Cape.
  • 1 wildflower walk on Table Mountain for the intrepid or along a beautiful riverbed for those less adventurous
  • 8 light lunches in the gardens or other spectacular settings – even when we sit down to eat the Cape will be all around us
  • 7 dinners in great restaurants – personal favourites
  • 1 free afternoon
  • 2 free evenings

Cape garden
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