Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

A botanical garden is a special type of place. It’s a garden but it exists for scientific purposes and not for beauty. Yet I think that most people visiting a botanical garden expect to see a beautiful place, a landscaped garden where plants are displayed with artistry.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden achieves both of these goals — and, because of this, is often named as one of the world’s great botanic gardens. Located on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, its setting is hard to beat for grandeur, even on a day so cloudy that the top of the mountain is lost to view.

A mountain top hides behind those clouds.

When I visited Kirstenbosch a week or so ago, very little was in bloom. There were some proteas,

King Protea

birds of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), a yellow cultivar named ‘Mandela’s Gold,’ after Nelson Mandela

Do you see the bird just taking flight?

and the odd aloe or two.

Aloe arborescense ‘Matthews’ in bloom

I fell in love with this fabulous cycad, one of many in the section of the garden that specialized in these plants.

Encephaloartos altensteinii was one of many cycads,
the ‘dinosaur’ plants so called because they existed long ago.

But what impressed me most were the trees.  Typically appealing was this spreading tree, underplanted in purple.

I like the way this white ironwood (Vepris lanceolata) has been pruned up to show the shape of the branches.
Or does it grow this way naturally?

Less impressive visually but more significant botanically was this silver tree which grows only the slopes of Table Mountain.

I was told that you can see silver trees from outer space.
This one is a young specimen.

Everywhere I looked I saw magnificent trees. I was overwhelmed by their beauty — and by my lack of knowledge. These trees were unfamiliar. Yet their shapes and colours,

Cape holly trees (Ilex mitts)

or their lumpily textured bark…

South Africa’s national tree: the yellowwood
(Podocarpus falcatus)

made me happy to be there.

Did Kirstenbosch fulfill its role as a botanical garden? I certainly learned things I didn’t know before, like the name of South Africa’s national tree. And that cycads have male and female cones. And that there are more types of Protea than I can ever hope to remember.

But the best thing thereI saw was this avenue of camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphor).

These trees lined the road that used to lead to Cape Town.
Now they are part of the botanical garden.

Sheer, splendid beauty. Glorious pieces of living art. 


Note:  A special thank you to the many readers who took the time to research the ‘patersonii’ referred to in last week’s post. 

A Scottish-born solider, explorer and botanist, William Paterson was the son of a gardener from near Glamis Castle. In 1777, at the age of 20, he was sent to the Cape Colony by the eccentric Countess of Strathmore. He made four trips into the interior of what is now South Africa to collect plants, publishing an account of his travels in a book titled Narrative of Four Journeys into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffraria. Subsequently he served in India and in Australia where he continued to collect botanical, geological and insect specimens. He became Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales, led an expedition to explore the country north of Sydney, up the river that was later named the Paterson River in his honour; he also explored widely in Tasmania and corresponded regularly with the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1798, his botanical collections are preserved in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. More oddly, he is said to have been the first person to bring a live giraffe to London.  

The life of his patron, Lady Strathmore, was perhaps more interesting than William Paterson’s. Certainly it was more salacious. A young heiress, Mary Eleanor was intensely interested in botany and was a friend of all the botanical big wigs of the day. Shortly before she turned 18, she married the 9th Earl of Strathmore. Despite having little in common, they had five children within 7 years. The Earl spent lots of her money gambling, then died, leaving her a merry 27 year-old widow. A year late, after several affairs and an abortion (all of which she chronicled in her Confessions, written in 1793), she married an Irish fortune hunter described by the writer Wendy Moore as ‘Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband.’ The Irishman beat her, brought his mistresses and bastards into the house and raped the servants. When she finally ran away he kidnapped her and imprisoned her, tearing down her greenhouses and destroying her collection of ‘weeds.’ Not a good guy. 

You can read more fascinating stories of Lt William Paterson and his patron Lady Strathmore here.

Thank you again, readers. What would I do without you?