Kirstenbosch Gardens: Monthly Historical Walks start in Dec 2012


Kirstenbosch Guides Dot Malan and Olwen Gibson.Aloes and succulents at Kirstenbosch . Photo Viv von der HeydenI had the privilege recently of being taken on a historical walk in Kirstenbosch on a beautiful Friday morning with other members of the media. What I learnt from our very knowledgeable guides, Olwen Gibson and Dot Malan, made me appreciate Kirstenbosch even more than I already did, if that is at all possible!


Our walk began in the Camphor Avenue where Olwen gave us the background history of the establishment of the gardens as we gazed up across the garden towards Table Mountain from which three streams flow, providing Kirstenbosch with its water.


100 years ago the Director of the famous Kew Gardens in England made the observation that South Africa was the only British colony without a botanical garden. The wealth of our floral kingdom was recognised as many of our plants had been exported to Holland, Germany and England. As a result Henry Harold Welch Pearson, born in 1870 in England, a distinguished Cambridge botanist who had taken up the position of Professor of Botany at what was then the South African College, began  enthusiastically to raise support in influential circles for the establishment of a botanical garden in Cape Town. His vision was for a garden for the study and preservation of the indigenous flora of South Africa with the additional purpose of exploiting the economic potential of the plants. He hoped to see ten botanical gardens established in South Africa, a dream that in 2013, 100 years after he became the first director of Kirstenbosch, may be realised if the tenth garden – at Kwelera in the Eastern Cape -is opened.


Silver Tree behind Mathews rockery in Kirstenbosch. Photo Viv von der HeydenAt first Pearson wished to establish a botanical garden where UCT now stands but he was persuaded to have a look at the neglected Kirsten farm to the east. He immediately recognised the potential of the land.  Cecil John Rhodes had bought the Kirsten farm in 1895 to use for riding, but he neglected the upkeep of the buildings and the land. When he died in 1902 he bequeathed it to the South African government. By this time farming had replaced the natural vegetation with vineyards, orchards and oaks, all of which were much neglected.  The indigenous forest had been harvested extensively. Cluster pines and a fire-belt of eucalyptus trees had been planted on the lower slopes. The Silver Tree forest on the slopes of Table Mountain had been invaded by aliens, hakeas, wattles, stinkbeans and pines and dense thickets of brambles covered the area.


As a result of Pearson’s efforts the National Botanical Society was officially created on 10 June 1913 and Kirstenbosch came into being on old Kirsten farm on 1 July 1913. Pearson was appointed Honorary Director, without salary, and had to divide his time between the University and Kirstenbosch.


A bed of yellow “Bloedwortel” with Table Mountain in the background. Aloes and succulents at Kirstenbosch . Photo Viv von der HeydenThe first curator of the gardens was Jimmy Mathews, a nurseryman who was also a correspondent for the Cape Argus. He wrote a book on gardening with South African plants. He started by clearing an area of the farm, planting grass and the yellow “Bloedwortel” , waterloving plants which grew well in the seepage from the spring further up. The root stock of the Bloedwortel is red and it is thought that it was used to create the dye with which indigenous people created their rock paintings.


Further along we passed the ruins of Mathews’ cottage now overgrown with Port St John’s Creeper. Mathews loved and collected succulents and planted them in the vicinity of his cottage. The succulent garden was moved to its present position in 1930. The first plant to be planted in Kirstenbosch was an Aloe Africana which was given the Aloes and succulents at Kirstenbosch . Photo Viv von der Heydenaccession number (001/13). Aloe Africana are still to be found in Mathews Rockery. Mathews was responsible for initiating and carrying out the early landscaping in the Garden. With a team of skilled stonemasons he built the paths, rockeries, bridges and capping stones with rocks brought down from Table Mountain by sledge. Three of the original families of stonemasons who were employed in Kirstenbosch are still going strong. David McLean, who started out as a messenger boy on a bike, joined the troops up North during WW2 and then returned to become a tractor driver in the gardens, giving 50 years service. Awie Basson, who gave about 40 years service, is reputed to have said, “We worked hard, but we worked Jolly!” Natalie Fredericks and Andrew Jacobs are two members of the original families still employed at Kirstenbosch. An inscription on a big rock under a Euphorbia Ingens in the Mathews Rockery commemorates Mathews and his extraordinary contribution to the establishment of Kirstenbosch.


As we walked towards the shady Dell, Olwen pointed out the original Silver Tree forest which grows over a granite outcrop which forms part of Wynberg Hill. Here the soil is good. She also pointed out an Ochna (Mickey Mouse bush) planted in 1915. Alongside it stands a tall Khaya antotheca or Red Mahogany, planted in 1947.


"Organic pathways" in Kirstenbosch Gardens. Photo Viv von der HeydenIdeas about botanical gardens that prevailed at the time such as the creation of straight pathways and geometric beds of family plants were discarded as Kirstenbosch did not lend itself to this kind of planning. Instead the  gardens were developed according to the natural flow of the landscape. The fact that Kirstenbosch was  intended to be a family park as well as a place of scientific research also influenced this organic development.


There was a public outcry when the oaks along the stream were taken out but, said Olwen, but since their removal the ecology of the stream has improved. The indigenous trees which, unlike the oaks, drop their leaves throughout the year, re-grew, restoring the natural flora and fauna along the stream . A lot of subtropical plants were also planted along the stream where they have flourished in the heat and humidity.


The tour took us through the Dell where we had a pleasant break in the shade beside the Bath built out to Dutch bricks by Colonel Christopher Bird in 1811. The bath was built as a clarifying pond for the perennial spring that bubbles up here at a point where the sandstone of Table Mountain meets the granite, forcing the water upwards. The temperature of the water is a constant 18 degrees. The pond had fallen into disrepair and was renovated in its original style between 1917 and 1920. The Cape Holly trees growing around the pond were already there before 1913. The Tree Ferns near the pond come from the Botanical Garden in Christchurch, New Zealand.


The Atlas Cedar below which lies Pearson's grave. Photo Viv von der HeydenFrom the Dell we emerged into the sunshine as we wandered through the cycads which have all been micro-chipped and DNA coded. Kirstenbosch has a living gene pool of cycads, an ancient plant group that pre-dates the dinosaurs.  Many of these plants came from Pearson’s own collection. They are one of the four orders of Gymnosperms found in Kirstenbosch, the others being the cedars, the cypresses and the yellowwoods. Olwen pointed out the  Atlas cedar, which grows beside Pearson’s grave. The Cedrus atlantica var. glauca was a gift from Kew, where Pearson’s passion for gymnosperms was well-known. It arrived after his untimely death from pneumonia in 1916. He was just 46. The epitaph on his grave reads: “If you seek his monument, look around”.


Olwen explained that the restio garden was only started in 1991. Prior to that no-one knew how to get the seeds to germinate. Professor Eloff, a scientist and the director of threatened species at the laboratory at Kirstenbosch, had realized that fire had something to do with the germination of the plants. Through experimentation by his PhD student Hannes de Lange it was found that found that neither the temperature nor the ash had anything to do with it. Using his trout smoker Hannes discovered that germination was brought about by smoke! Since then restios have been successfully grown, their variety of shapes contributing to the charm of the gardens.


Our path took us past the nine beds representing the different parts of the South Western Cape and Pelargonium Koppie, a well-drained sandstone outcrop. In the early 1600s our pelargoniums were taken to Germany, England and Switzerland where they were hybridised and called geraniums. South Africa received no royalties for this!


Crossing the bridge made from the stones of the original farmhouse we reached the Fragrance Garden where the beds are low so that people in wheelchairs and young children can touch and feel the plants, releasing a variety of beautiful fragrances. Just beyond the Fragrance Garden is the Garden of Extinction which features a tombstone to an Erica which was thought to have become extinct as a result of urbanization and over-harvesting


Our walk came to an end at the Peninsula Garden where there is a memorial to Brian Rycroft who was a Director at Kirstenbosch from 1954 to 1984. He established five new satellite gardens. He also made sure that the freeway was not built below Kirstenbosch by lying in front the tractor claiming “Over my dead body!”


Thanks to men and women of vision, Kirstenbosch has achieved the distinction of being one of the top seven botanical gardens in the world. By taking part in the monthly historical walks and the themed walks that are being offered during 2013, your experience of this beautiful garden will be greatly enhanced – just as mine was.

Copyright of Vivenne von der Heyden

Many thanks to Olwen Gibson for all her input.

Related articles

2013 is a milestone year for both Kirstenbosch and the Botanical Society as both celebrate their Centenary.


It is hard to believe 100 years ago this site, today revered as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, was a derelict farm. What stories does the garden have to tell?


The Botanical Society’s Kirstenbosch Branch volunteer Garden Guides know all the secrets of the garden and have planned some very special monthly walks that take the visitor through the history of this wonderful destination. These two hour walks pay homage to all those who turned this alien-ridden farm into a world class Botanical Garden.


The guides are brimming with amazing knowledge and insights into the garden and its history and are guaranteed to fascinate and enhance your appreciation of Kirstenbosch. Add to that a series of bi-monthly theme walks that take in such subjects as Cape Plants, Cape Floral Region, Fynbos, Kirstenbosch, Table Mountain and much more to entice visitors back time and again.


All walks are free after entering the garden and more information can be found at: or the Kirstenbosch Info Desk: 021 799 8783.

It is essential to book for the historical walk which takes place on the first Saturday of every month from December 2012 to December 2013. Ph 021 799 8783.


For further information:

Please contact Kate Steyn at the Kirstenbosch branch of the Botanical Society

 021 6715468