History or horticulture? How about a whole lot of both at Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden?
The Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden is one of the Cape’s most well-known tourism draw cards, as well as being a favourite with locals as a picnic spot. Any Cape Town guide book worth its salt will tell you about the Garden’s 528 hectares of indigenous flora and natural forest (36 of which are cultivated), its restaurants, its hiking trails and its line-up of summer concerts. What they might not tell you about is Kirstenbosch’s very long and interesting history …
It’s a common misconception that just about all of Cape Town sprang into existence only when European settlers planted their first steps on our shores. While it is true that most of our early architecture and civil systems can be attributed to these intrepid travellers, there was life before Jan van Riebeeck – evidence of which was discovered at Kirstenbosch (among, of course, many other places) in the form of pear-shaped stone implements and digging sticks. It’s not much, but it’s the earliest record of the site.
Following whichever mysterious stone-tool-wielding people were there first came the Dutch in the 17th century, who planted a hedge of wild almond and bramble to demarcate the edge of the newly settled colony, parts of which exist to this day and are known as Van Riebeeck’s hedge. The forests on site were mostly harvested for timber during this period.
Sadly, any hard record of the provenance of the name has been lost. Authorities believe it to have some connection to Kirsten, a fairly common family name in the area at the time and indeed that of the land’s manager in the 1700s, one JF Kirsten, which seems logical given the literal translation of Kirstenbosch as Kirsten’s Forest.
British colonialists followed on the heels of the Dutch, and during their occupation two large grants of this land were made – one to Colonel Bird, the other to a Henry Alexander, both of whom built houses on the property, though the Colonel is also credited with the construction of the bath in the area known as the Dell. Sometimes referred to as the Bird Bath, because of the Colonel’s supposed hand in its construction as well as its shape, this sunken pool at the spring of the Liesbeeck river within the Dell is more commonly known as Lady Anne Barnard’s Bath. The wife of a colonial secretary, Lady Anne is most famously known for her published travel diaries of life in the Cape and for her authorship of the ballad Auld Robin Gray. However, she is also more infamously remembered here for her scandalous habit of bathing nude at the Cape of Good Hope Castle, and is rumoured to have indulged the habit while on a picnic at the bath at Kirstenbosch.
Fast forward to 1823, in which both properties were taken over by the Ecksteen family, who later passed the land on to the Cloete family, a clan who farmed the area as well as planting oaks, fruit trees and vines. And of course, one cannot delve too deep into bits of the Cape’s history without stumbling upon our favourite erstwhile character, Sir Cecil John Rhodes. The illustrious colonialist purchased the Cloete family’s property in 1895 – only to let it fall into ruin at the, er, trotters of a herd of pigs, who fed on the masses of fallen acorns and wallowed in the area’s muddy pools. Luckily for the Garden, Rhodes died in 1902, upon which event he bequeathed Kirstenbosch to the people of the Cape as part of his Groot Schuur estate. Thanks Cecil.
Another historical personage deserving of our gratitude is Professor H Pearson, a botanist from Cambridge University who came to South Africa in 1903 to fill the Chair of Botany at the South African College (now UCT). Professor Pearson deemed the land a suitable site for the construction of a botanic garden, and in 1913 took on the directorship of the project, despite there being no salary provision in the £1 000 per annum government grant. Nonetheless, living in severely reduced and difficult circumstance, the Prof set about the mammoth task of taming the overgrown estate, coming up against such obstacles as the ruins of the Cloete homestead, orchards overrun with weeds, a Bath all but obscured by bush and, of course, the free-ranging piggies. Founded with the idea of preserving the country’s unique flora, Kirstenbosch became the first botanic garden in the world with this ethos – one that survives to this day, with only indigenous plants cultivated in the Garden.
Sadly, the dear old Prof died from pneumonia in 1916 at the age of 46, probably due to his less-than-ideal living conditions. He is buried in the Garden, his epitaph reading, ‘If ye seek his monument, look around’ – a prophetic statement given that some of the cycads he planted in the Dell are still flourishing today.
Since that time, a great deal of construction has been concluded on the Garden, using Table Mountain stone for cobbling, curbing, and the building of wells, rockeries and stone features. Though any work done nowadays is, of course, mechanised, much of the early stages of development were completed manually – with the help of trolleys and donkeys. The area of developed garden has steadily increased to its current, rather impressive size, and the Kirstenbosch Garden now enjoys its incarnation as a tourist attraction and botanist’s bolthole. Guided walks are offered, as well as self-guide headsets, for those who want to learn about the diverse plant life, and the tea room, restaurant, gift shop, craft markets and summer sunset concerts pull thousands of visitors through the gates every year.
Over time, the objectives and mission of the Garden’s management have evolved and changed, though there has always been a focus on the appreciation and preservation of South Africa’s exceptionally rich plant life. So next time you’re enjoying a picnic on the sprawling lawns, spare a thought for the Garden’s history and historical characters by taking some time to appreciate the beauty around you – and the absence of any curly-tailed fellow picnickers.
The Garden is open 365 days a year.
Summer from 08h00 to 19h00 (September to March)
Winter from 08h00 to 18h00 (April to August).