Centuries old trees in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden bear witness to the history of the land over the past 350 years, but Stone Age hand axes found in the vicinity of the spring in the Dell indicate that people had been living here in prehistoric times.
The forests of the slopes were used for timber by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) from1657 and belonged to the Company until the first British Occupation of the Cape in 1795. In 1659 10 000 Muscat d’Alexandrie grapevines were planted on the slopes of Table Mountain, including Kirstenbosch. Jan van Riebeeck’s Wild Almond hedge was planted to form the boundary of the Dutch outpost by a group of shipwrecked French refugees on their way to Madagascar in the winter of 1660 . Van Riebeeck also planted many fruit trees, wheat lands and trees such as oaks, chestnuts and grey poplars on the property.
In the 1700s the land was managed by J.F Kirsten on behalf of the Dutch East India Company and it is thought that his surname is the origin of the name Kirstenbosch.
After the second British occupation ended in 1806, the land was bought by the Colonial secretary Henry Alexander and his deputy, Colonel Christopher Bird, who built the bath at the spring in the dell. It was privately owned from 1811, farmed from 1823 until 1895, when it was purchased by Cecil John Rhodes for 9000 pounds with the intention of protecting the eastern slopes of Table Moutain from urban development. He allowed the land to become neglected and the homestead was left empty and fell into ruin. On his death in 1902, the land was bequeathed to the Government, and the Forestry Department planted the estate with pines and eucalyptus.
In May 1913, the Government of the day set aside the estate of Kirstenbosch for the establishment of a National Botanical Garden at Kirstenbosch. The Garden was to be controlled by a Board of five Trustees, three appointed by the Government, one by the Municipality of Cape Town and one by the Botanical Society. The Board held its first meeting on 16 June 1913, and appointed Prof. H.H.W. Pearson as Honorary Director (with no salary) and J.W. Mathews as Curator. A Secretary, a Ranger and a Gardener were also appointed. On 1 July 1913, the Kirstenbosch estate was handed over to the Board of Trustees and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was born.
Pearson’s vision for the new botanical garden was the study and preservation of the country’s indigenous flora, something no other botanical garden had ever done. Pearson and Mathews were confronted with a neglected, overgrown farm, a ruined homestead, hordes of pigs, thickets of weeds and extensive plantations of alien plants.
Much of the early work involved clearing the weeds and constructing paths and stormwater drains, but attention also had to be given to the prevention of fire, theft and poaching. In the first year, the nursery site had been selected (beside the Bath Stream in the Dell), terraced and a workshed erected, and the main lawn had been cleared and planted with grass. In the first ten to fifteen years many of the principle features of the garden were established: hundreds of cycads were planted in the Cycad Amphitheatre, the rock work along the Bath stream and stone work in the Dell and the Cycad Amphitheatre was completed, Colonel Bird’s Bath was restored, the Main Pond was excavated, Mathews Rockery and the Koppie were laid out, the Protea Garden, Erica Garden and Arboretum were begun, and the living plant collections were being built up. Right from the beginning, the development of the garden has followed the natural, flowing landscape, rather than imposing itself upon it with rigid, geometric lines, and the natural stone has been used for the paths, rockeries and walls.
It is thanks to Pearson’s foresight, determination and skill that we have a botanical garden at Kirstenbosch. The passion, hard work and dedication of generations of staff, and the support of the Botanical Society and its members over the past 100 years have made Kirstenbosch what it is today.
Info from HIPPO Communicationsand brochures from SANBI
For further information please contact Beryl Eichenberger on 021 556 8200 / 082 4906652