Alan Titchmarsh: Why Kirstenbosch is the gardener’s garden

Alan Titchmarsh waxes lyrical about one of the world's truly magnificent gardens: Kirstenbosch in South Africa, a quite magical place.

Holidaying abroad at the height of summer has always struck me as a bit of a waste. Although undeniably a little overblown during the month of August, the British garden is still a good place to be – breakfast on the terrace, lunches at a trestle table among the trees in a corner of the meadow, evening drinks in the summer house, wasps in the gin – no, forget that bit.

Summer is summer and I don’t want to miss it, but when November and December have sunk their teeth into the garden and all is mud and soggy leaves, then this Englishman’s fancy turns to thoughts of sunnier climes – just for a couple of weeks, to warm my bones. Our break is generally taken in the New Year, when Christmas is still a happy memory and before the dim light of February depresses. However, this year, we ventured abroad earlier – to a friend’s daughter’s wedding in South Africa at the end of November.

Cape Town was our destination, a vibrant coastal city possessed of a comfortable climate – summer for them – with temperatures around 25˚C and most of the time a gentle breeze. The V&A Waterfront, named after Queen Victoria and her son Prince Alfred, is rich in restaurants and boating activity, but, for a gardener, the ‘must see’ destination is Kirstenbosch, the national botanic garden, on the eastern slopes of the majestic Table Mountain.

Beautiful is what it is… #forevergrateful #blessed #green #garden #trees #nature #kirstenboschgardens #boomslang #sky

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I’ve been there on a couple of occasions before – the last being 17 years ago – but, if anything, the impact the gardens had this time was greater than ever. The Cape flora is renowned as being one of the richest and most diverse in the world. Fynbos, that mixture of plants and scrub that typifies the tip of Southern Africa, comprises a cornucopia of plant riches from proteas and Cape heaths to fleshy-leaved succulents and restios – those strange reed-like plants that suggest an aristocratic mare’s tail.

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‘A treasure trove of South African flowers’

Founded in 1913, Kirstenbosch is a treasure trove of endemic and indigenous South African flowers, trees and shrubs that will make any plantsman drool. Happily, it also impressed the wife of this plantsman, whose knowledge of botanical Latin is minimal, but whose appreciation of beauty is well developed.

The garden’s situation is a great advantage: Table Mountain (with or without the tablecloth of mist) towers above and, away in the far distance, Cape Town can be seen nestling on the plain that stretches out to the Atlantic.

The best views of the city are from the garden’s newly constructed tree-canopy walkway or Boomslang, which means ‘tree snake’, and that’s what this sinuous treetop pathway does, winding its way through the tops of the trees for 425ft, some 40ft above the ground. The sensation is delightful and spectacular, not only for the views, but also for the proximity to the treetops and the colourful birds that populate them.

The sloping ground of Kirstenbosch is a great advantage, as there are fine views of plants and flowers, trees and shrubs in all directions: an amphitheatre of cycads, a grove of ‘silver trees’ (Leucadendron argenteum), now threatened in the wild, but guaranteed survival in this garden, where their towering cockades of silvery leaves dazzle in the sunshine.

‘Plants are revered for their own qualities and treasured because they’re the country’s legacy’

Proteas, the national flower of South Africa, have their own area on the upper slopes of the garden. It’s impossible not to reach out and feel the springy flowers of leucospermums to see if they are real, to stroke the queen protea’s outer petals, wrapping around the central cluster of florets, and to sigh over border after border of sky-blue agapanthus.

So rich and diverse is the plant collection here that the areas of grass that sweep between beds and borders provide welcome respite from this embarras de richesses, breathing spaces that complement the native flora and add to its impressiveness and which also allow parties of excited schoolchildren to pause and fill in the answers to the questionnaire fastened to their clipboards. Their laughter and enjoyment rang out through the garden – not in an irritating fashion, but in a way that reassured us just how treasured is this national plant collection.

Of all the foreign gardens I have visited, Kirstenbosch takes the prize as the one whose plants are most impactful. It’s a gardener’s garden, where plants are revered for their own qualities and treasured because they’re the country’s legacy.

This piece was originally published in Country Life in 2017

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