Sprawled across Table Mountain’s eastern slopes with Skeleton Gorge, Castle Rock and Nursery Ravine towering over it, is one of the world’s finest botanical gardens – Kirstenbosch.
The gardens are part of the mountain, which Nelson Mandela named “a sacred and precious place, a gift to the earth.”
Kirstenbosch showcases a huge diversity of flora thanks to its position within the Cape Floral Kingdom. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed kingdom is the smallest of the world’s six kingdoms and, with its extraordinarily high diversity of distinctive flora, probably the richest.
Only 36 hectares of the entire 528 hectares are cultivated, the rest is protected natural forest and a concentration of the wider Cape Floral Kingdom’s fynbos (fine bush) – best enjoyed from August to November.
More than 7000 of Southern Africa’s 22,000 plants species are grown here including fynbos – predominantly proteas, heaths and ericas. The broader 90,000-square-kilometre Cape Floral Kingdom (the only kingdom that falls entirely within one country) has more than 9000 known species of flowering fynbos, 70 per cent of which can only be found in this region.
World-renowned for the role it plays in the conservation of the endangered and endemic species, most notably fynbos.
A wide variety of indigenous birds, animals, reptiles, frogs and invertebrates are supported here too.
This is a magical world of different gardens. There’s a garden of extinction displaying some of the nearly 1500 South African endangered plants, an elevated fragrance garden, a short, circular braille trail, a “useful plants” garden devoted to traditional medicinal and practical plants.
Look out for the garden of weeds – indigenous plants that are weeds elsewhere – The Koppie and pelargonium garden, peninsula and vlei gardens, water-wise garden, Mathews rockery displaying succulents and bulbs, gardens dedicated to ericas, proteas, restios, buchus, vygies (a colour explosion between September and October). The conservatory with its central baobab has sections representing arid ecological regions. Look out for the welwitschias and stone plants. The arboretum has more than 450 southern African tree species. The sculpture garden features works in the Shona tradition.
Around the gates are the popular lower gardens with spacious lawns, bordered by flower beds and a rocky stream. Gate 1 is at the bottom of the garden, next to shops and a greenhouse and Gate 2 is slightly further up where the Tea Room is. The stream varies from a torrent after winter rain to a little trickle in summer.
In summer there are good concerts and an open air cinema. The gardens are wonderful to picnic in and all you bring in must leave with you as there are no bins!
There are lovely flower displays here in the winter months with the vibrant oranges and reds of aloes and red hot pokers.
In spring, the beds near Gate 1 come alive with the bright flowers of various daisies and vygies, which represents in a microcosm what happens on a large scale in the West Coast National Park and Darling. For bird watchers, these flowers are a magnet for southern double-collared sunbirds and the brilliant malachite sunbirds. Cape bulbuls, speckled mousebirds and Cape robin-chats are also frequent visitors to these flower beds. The nearby pond regularly hosts families if Egyptian geese and the reed beds are used as by levaillant’s cisticola, little rush warbler and flocks of common waxbills and bronze mannikins.
A pair of spotted eagle owls use the hanging pot plants near Gate 1 as nests in some years to raise their chicks… a gorgeous sight.
The Dell, just above the Otter Pond, is the oldest part of the garden and is dominated by towering yellowwood trees and an ancient fig tree. Beds of Clivia and Streptocarpus thrive in the shade of these giants, providing a brilliant display of colour when they flower. A beautiful stream flows through the Dell, fringed by emerald ferns and impressive tree ferns and echoing with the calls of Cape River Frogs. Hand axes and other stone tools have been found by archaeologists in the springs, indicating that this water source was used for thousands of years! Several species of cycad dominate the beds, including one particular individual that is the last of its kind.
The Enchanted Forest has the 130 metre Boomslang Tree Canopy with wonderful views at high level of trees and of the gardens and mountains. The trees include Cape Saffron, Yellowwoods, Candlewood, Cape Beech, Wild Plum and Wild Olive. For birdwatchers, these forests are a great place to look for elusive species like lemon doves and olive woodpeckers.
Cape batis and paradise flycatchers often build their nests here while African olive pigeons and greenbuls travel between the fruiting trees.
The upper sections of Kirstenbosch are dominated by beds of fynbos. Various species of Proteas, Ericas and other species flower at different times of the year. In the first months of the year, Erica beds have a brilliant pink show. In spring, pincushion proteas burst with bright yellows, oranges and reds along with the subtle pinks of the sugar bushes.
The King Proteas tend to flower in February and March and the endangered Marsh Rose in June and July. During the winter months, a variety of mushrooms and other fungi can also be found in amongst the fynbos beds.
Hiking and Walking Trails
There are five trails of differing levels of difficulty. All are well-maintained, logged footpaths or gravel roads and are sign-posted. The Braille Trail and Boekenhout Trail are ideal forest walks for those pressed for time and the not so fit. The Stinkwood Trail is a relatively short exploration of the oldest part of the forest with some of the largest trees. The Yellowwood Trail and Silvertree Trail are long hikes that take you up to the waterfall and around the estate, through both forest and fynbos.
It is possible tp climb Table Mountain from the fynbos garden via the more challenging and popular hikes up Nursery Ravine or Skeleton Gorge.
Please take care when hiking on Table Mountain – it has many sheer cliffs and steep gorges and unpredictable weather. Also, people have been mugged on the mountain. Please follow the safety guidelines when walking or hiking on the mountain.
Kirstenbosch has more than 125 bird species plus grysbok, caracal, spotted genet, Cape porcupine, angulate tortoises, marsh terrapins and water mongoose.
The Fynbos Garden teems with life. The sandstone rocks provide homes for rock agama and crag lizards, while angulate tortoises search for food deep in the flowerbed. Striped mice race between the flowerbeds and Cape Mongooses occasionally come out into the open. If you are very lucky, you may even spot a Cape genet or a caracal searching for prey in the early morning or evening.
Fynbos attracts birds! The spectacular orange-breasted sunbird favour the ericas flowering in the first few months of the year and the pincushion proteas in August and September
The pincushion flowering season also draws in the equally extravagant malachite sunbirds, and occasionally amethyst sunbirds put in an appearance. But the one bird that is always present here is the Cape sugarbird with the flamboyant tails of the males, their bizarre calls and their comical expressions.
A number of other birds also live here alongside these nectar feeders. Southern boubous search for insects, geckos and nestlings, their melodic calls echoing across the gardens. Brimstone and forest canaries feed on flower seeds while rock kestrels hunt overhead. Families of guinea fowl search for food on the lawns.
Free Bird Walks
Linda Hibbin organises 2 hour weekday walking tours by knowledgeable bird guides from the Cape Bird Club and others.
Members of the public are very welcome, so do bring your friends who would like to learn how to identify the birds.
Meeting Place: is at the Information Desk of the Visitor’s Centre, Gate 1.
For more information contact Linda Hibbin on 021 788 1528 or email email@example.com
Free Guided Tours
These last for 90 minutes and are with experts who focus on the seasonal highlights. Meet at the Visitors Centre, Gate 1 at 10.00, 11.00 or 14.00 on Mondays to Fridays.
Parts of the garden are good for wheelchair access including the Fragrance Garden, Tea Room area and the Bridge. Others are possible with assistance but the higher fynbos areas are not accessible.
The gardens offer a microcosm of Cape history, told through flora. There’s a remnant of the thorny wild almond hedge (a member of the protea family) that Dutch East India Company administrator Jan van Riebeeck planted in 1660. Van Riebeeck set up a Cape refreshment station for ships to the East Indies but the new settlement crossed traditional Khoikhoi grazing routes. Conflict broke out in 1659, and the defensive boundary hedge marked the start of South Africa’s long history of disputed land battles, culminating in apartheid.
Trek up the hill and this hedge that was there at the beginning of white settlement, remains there today. Continue to the mountain contour path to gaze across the valley that melts into the Cape Flats and eventually bumps against the pale blue fringe of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.
Various people owned the land after the Dutch East Indies Company lost control of the Cape in 1795 to new occupiers, the British. One of them, Colonel Christopher Bird, discovered a clear water spring around which he built a bird-shaped pool.
In 1902, Cecil John Rhodes bequeathed Kirstenbosch to the nation and in 1913 it became the National Botanic Garden.
Director, Professor Henry Pearson enlisted South Africans in plant collections that exist to this day. In went the avenue of pink-canopied Cape chestnuts, the beds of vygies or mesembryanthemums and other succulents near the entrance. The aloe koppie (little hill) was planted and a pelargonium collection. He is buried on the slopes overlooking the cycads.
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