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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Kirstenbosch, South Africa – This is the place!

By Jim Bishop.

Last month I wrote about visiting the bulb fields at of the Western Cape area of South Africa this past September. However, the original purpose of the trip was to visit Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden on the eastern foot of Table Mountain in Cape Town. I was fortunate to be able to spend two days there; one cool and rainy and the other bright and sunny. It is one of the great botanical gardens of the world and on every horticulturist’s must-visit list. It is a UNESCO world heritage site located in the Cape Floral Kingdom. The garden contains over 7000 plant species including many that are rare and threatened. There is a large peninsula garden containing over 2500 plant species found only on the cape of the South Africa peninsula.

My first day in Kirstenbosch was cool and showery and allowed me to explore the garden mostly on my own. The occasional mist cloaking the top of the mountain and blowing through the trees added to the exotic mystique of the garden. However, with over 1300 acres it was difficult to know where to start. In every direction were strange, beautiful and unusual plants begging for my attention. Since it was raining lightly I began in the greenhouses and then slowly worked my way through the gardens in a clockwise direction going uphill. The greenhouses contain the plants mostly of South African regions drier than Cape Town. These included exotic succulents and euphorbias and a large collection of rare bulbs. Once outside I encountered what is probably the largest collection of Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’ (yellow-flowered bird of paradise) in the world. These led to Camphor Avenue. This was once a main road and was planted in 1898 with Cinnamomum camphora trees from China and Moreton Bay figs. They were some of the largest I had ever seen.

A bit higher up in the garden is collection of 37 of the 40 known Encephalartos species of South African cycads. Some are the size of palm trees and one is the last known surviving plant of its species. Since cycads are dioecious (male or female) and this is a female plant, without pollen from a male plant there is no way to propagate more of the species.

Nearby is tree canopy elevated walkway that goes through and above the arboretum that is a collection of over 450 south African tree species. Most notable for me was the largest Cussonia spicata, cabbage tree, that I've ever seen.

Next up were the Fynbos gardens with proteas, ericas, restios, leucadendrons, plus many more species endemic to the Western Cape. Fynbos is an Afrikaans word that translates to ‘fine bush’. It is a similar ecology to our own coastal sage scrub, but with many more species making it the smallest and richest density of plant species of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It covers just 0.5% of the contintent of Africa yet contains nearly 20% of Africa’s plant species. With most everything at the peak of spring bloom it became impossible to keep track of each plant and instead I ran to exhaustion from one plant to the next in awe. There was no way to pick a favorite plant or even a favorite flower with 1000s to choose from. Still a few stood out. There were countless Ericas of different sizes and foliage and flowers. And of course a huge protea collection, including the King Protea, the official flower of South Africa. While I know many of the proteas here in California are hybrids, the naturally occurring ones are every bit as beautiful and breathtaking. At the top of the cultivated garden was bed of Leucadendron argenteum, silver tree. The leaves of this tree are frequently used on Rose Bowl Parade floats when they need to simulate the metallic look of silver. The tree grows naturally on the steep slope just above the garden on the side of Table Mountain. The tree in endangered in the wild and in 2005 only about 1000 naturally occurring trees were counted on Table Mountain, down from 6850 in the 1970s.

There were also many different aloes, eurphorbias, geraniums, pelargoniums, polygalas, acacia, coleonemas, asters, euryops, restios and countless other plants I had never seen before. There was even a display garden of South African plants that had become invasive in Southern California. Finally some plants that I was familiar with, though not necessarily in a good way.

Scott arrived that evening and we visited Kirstenbosch his second day there. It was clear and sunny and all of the flowers in annual and bulb beds were fully open. The difference in lighting an temperature made it like visiting it all again for the first time.

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