Five kilometres south of Rondebosch, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are one of the planet’s great natural treasure houses, a status acknowledged in 2004 when they became part of South Africa’s sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first botanical garden in the world to achieve this. The listing recognizes the international significance of the fynbos plant kingdom that predominates here.
Kirstenbosch is the oldest and largest botanical garden in South Africa, created in 1895 by Cecil Rhodes, whose camphor and fig trees are still here. Today, over 22,000 indigenous plants – and a research unit and library – attract researchers and botanists from all over the world. There’s a nursery selling local plants, while characteristic Cape plants, found nowhere else in the world, are cultivated on the slopes. The gardens are magnificent, glorying in lush shrubs and exuberant blooms.
The gardens trail off from the lower gardens, which are formally organized, into wild vegetation, covering a huge expanse of the rugged eastern slopes and wooded ravines of Table Mountain. The setting is quite breathtaking – this is a great place to have tea and stroll around gazing up at the mountain, or to wander along the paths, which meander steeply to the top with no fences cutting off the way. Two popular paths, starting from the Contour Path above Kirstenbosch, are Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge; note that there have been muggings in the isolated reaches of Kirstenbosch and on Table Mountain, and women and hikers are advised to walk in groups and avoid carrying valuables.
Early Dutch settlers were alarmed by the lack of good timber on the Cape Peninsula’s hillsides, which were covered by nondescript, scrubby bush they described as fijn bosch (literally “fine bush”) and which is now known by its Afrikaans name fynbos (pronounced “fayn-bos”). The settlers planted exotics, like the oaks that now shade central Cape Town, and over the ensuing centuries their descendants established pine forests on the sides of Table Mountain in an effort to create a landscape that fulfilled their European idea of the picturesque. It’s only relatively recently that Capetonians have come to claim fynbos proudly as part of the peninsula’s heritage. Amazingly, many bright blooms in Britain and the US, including varieties of geraniums, freesias, gladioli, daisies, lilies and irises, are hybrids grown from indigenous Cape plants.
Fynbos is remarkable for its astonishing variety of plants, its 8500 species making it one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. The Cape Peninsula alone, measuring less than 500 square kilometres, has 2256 plant species (nearly twice as many as Britain, which is five thousand times bigger). The four basic types of fynbos plants are proteas (South Africa’s national flower); ericas, amounting to six hundred species of heather; restios (reeds); and geophytes, including ground orchids and the startling flaming red disas, which can be seen in flower on Table Mountain in late summer.