Down the garden path
Bright life ... the eastern slopes of Table Mountain at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Photo: Getty Images
From little things, big things grow. In 1652, when the southern tip of Africa was still ruled by Khoikhoi herdsmen and their Nguni cattle, a small orchard and vegetable patch was planted in the shadows of Table Mountain. Initially intended as a victual station for scurvy-blighted sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Dutch East India Company's garden grew so fast it was soon able to sustain a permanent settlement: Cape Town.
On this temperate headland of loamy soils, the Dutch had stumbled across a green thumb's paradise. The Cape Floristic Region may be the smallest of the world's six floral kingdoms but, for each square kilometre, it is the most botanically diverse. Proteas, geraniums, agapanthus, ericas - all are native to the Cape - and those are just the ones I have in my own garden. This botanical diversity, coupled with nearly 400 years of Dutch, English and contemporary African horticultural influences, makes South Africa's second city one of the world's great destinations for garden lovers.
Here are five options for those inclined to wander down the garden path. From the stately grounds of an 18th-century governor's estate to a 21st-century campaign to paint the townships green, they represent the botanical best of the Cape.
The remote beauty of Vergelegen. Photo: Getty Images
The Company's Garden
What started as the 17th-century equivalent of a pharmacy is now Cape Town's principal park, dissecting the city centre in two and providing a focal point for many of South Africa's chief cultural and political institutions. Flanking its entrance is the National Parliament (where apartheid was vociferously defended from the front bench) and St George's Cathedral (where apartheid was vociferously denounced from the pulpit); the president's residence, national library and national gallery are all also accessed via the garden.
King Protea in the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town. Photo: Getty Images
Though the garden lost its commercial value at the turn of the 18th century, when the other side of Table Mountain was found to be even more arable, you can still see the original canals used to irrigate the vegetables and a gnarled pear tree that was the first tree planted in 1652 (it still bears fruit).
Today the shady garden is devoted to leisure, with office workers from the nearby city centre taking lunch breaks beside canoodling couples and children chasing the legions of pigeons and squirrels.
Under the stewardship of chief gardener Jan Hartog (1689-1714), the one-time farm developed into a world-renowned botanic garden showcasing both indigenous flora and exotic species brought back to the Cape from abroad. Highlights include a 200-year-old black mulberry walkway, a dazzling 1930s rose garden and a succulents garden containing an octopus-like aloe tree, stands of papaya-red aloe ferox (both endemic to South Africa) and rows of aloe vera - particularly handy, given the garden's seemingly resident community of sunburnt English backpackers.
Yellow Bird pincushion protea. Photo: Getty Images
The Company's Garden, Queen Victoria Street, City Bowl. Open daily 7am-7pm (6pm in winter), free.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Though former South African prime minister Cecil Rhodes remains a controversial figure here (one man's philanthropic civiliser is another man's racist imperialist), his parting gift to the nation is universally loved. Occupying the lower eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch, established in 1913, is the world's first botanic garden dedicated to preserving its nation's flora. The 528-hectare estate includes a cultivated garden and a nature reserve where the indigenous blanket of assorted shrubs known as fynbos seamlessly merges into Table Mountain (which, with more species than Britain, is a botanic garden in itself). Kirstenbosch's beds are arranged according to families and separated by winding stone paths and putting-green lawns; on a wet and windy morning, I clutch my umbrella and explore the near-deserted gardens. There are loudly coloured vyggies, iconic bird of paradise flowers and dainty pink pelargoniums, heathy ericas, reed-like restios and brunias whose white, dimpled flowers resemble golf balls.
The main attraction, however, are the proteas, kings of the fynbos and South Africa's floral emblem. Named after Proteus, a Greek god who could change his shape at will, South Africa's 260 protea species have flowers resembling anything from cones, artichokes, spiders and pincushions, while their foliage ranges from needles to paddle-shaped leaves. When I visit, the most impressive are the burgundy-pink Protea sylvias.
And when the heavens open, lashing them with rain, I notice a difference between the flower and its namesake South African cricket team. Unlike the lads in pyjamas, these proteas don't wilt under pressure.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Rhodes Drive, Newlands. Open daily 8am-7pm (6pm in winter). Admission, adults 40 rand ($4.90), children 10 rand.
Some of Cape Town's best gardens are hidden behind giant walls in the city's affluent southern suburbs. For a look inside this exclusive world, I head to Cellars-Hohenort in Constantia Valley, a boutique hotel and acclaimed restaurant occupying an estate that once belonged to the chief surgeon of the Dutch East India Company.
I am met outside the hotel by Jean Almon, a sophisticated septuagenarian who has worked as a volunteer horticulturist here for 20 years. It's starting to drizzle as we venture into the garden and Almon is dressed for the occasion: watermelon lipstick, designer gumboots, designer brolly and a beige suit straight out of Richie Benaud's wardrobe. "One should look at their best," she tells me in her clipped Anglo-African accent, "even when one is gardening."
Like most of Cape Town's private gardens, Cellars-Hohenort is heavily influenced by European horticulture. The property's front garden contains immaculate white roses, hedges and lavender, while out the back a stand of 300-year-old camphors and Dutch oaks tower above beds of snowdrops, daisies and a citrus grove. A potager garden in a hotel courtyard evokes provincial France.
Unlike European gardens, though, Cellars-Hohenort teems with birdlife: a troop of daggy guinea fowl hoot and holler as they waddle out of our way, ducks preen themselves beside ponds and sunbirds feast on the sugar bushes. Less welcome are the moles, their messy mounds protruding from an otherwise immaculate lawn. "They are the bane of my existence," Almon sighs as she inspects their damage.
Cellars-Hohenort, 93 Brommersvlei Road, Constantia. Gardens open to restaurant and hotel guests only. cellars-hohenort.com.
Harvest of Hope
It's only a few kilometres from Constantia to the Cape Flats as the guinea fowl flies but the two neighbourhoods occupy different worlds. A wind-buffeted, rain-shadowed expanse of land between two mountain ranges, "the Flats", home to the Cape's biggest townships, are a far cry from Constantia's well-watered verdure - something that makes the Harvest of Hope program more remarkable.
Started in 2007 by Abalimi Bezekhaya (Xhosa for "home gardeners"), a local non-government organisation dedicated to supporting urban greening in disadvantaged communities, Harvest of Hope is a co-operative of 15 Cape Flats community vegetable gardens and 50 per cent of what is grown is eaten by the gardeners, with the other half - about 380 vegetable boxes a week - delivered to kitchens in Cape Town.
Gardening gurus can see the project on weekly tours of one of the gardens and the packing centre. Oases of green among the Cape Flats' ubiquitous tin shacks and tangled telephone wires, the gardens overflow with organically grown seasonal produce and African matriarchs who tend them.
"Our main purpose is to provide food security for the local community," Abalimi Bezekhaya's Roland Welte says, "but other benefits to those [gardeners] involved include increased self-esteem, job creation, environmental awareness and fun."
What started as a bid to put food in bellies is now proving a balm for local souls - and an inspiring destination for garden tourists.
The Harvest of Hope tour is free and runs from 9am to noon every Tuesday. Tours leave from the corner of Wetton Road and Rosmead Avenue, Wynberg. harvestofhope.co.za.
Vergelegen is Dutch for "remotely situated" and, in 1700, it was. That year, when Willem Adriaan van der Stel was granted 400 morgen of land (about 340 hectares), a day's coach ride from the town limits of Cape Town, to farm, he was expanding the frontiers of the Cape Colony. Who knew how many lions, elephants and - heaven forbid - Hottentots (Khoikhoi) roamed beyond the Helderberg massif?
Today Vergelegen is a 40-minute drive from Cape Town but its size and grandeur still make it feel remote. This huge estate - 3000 hectares of vines, restored fynbos and cultivated gardens - was used by van der Stel, a former Cape governor, to rear sheep and cattle and grow wheat and grapes.
Of more interest to contemporary visitors is the wine tasting and the magnificent manor and accompanying grounds. Built by about 300 slaves, Vergelegen's thatched homestead is fronted by rolling lawns and surrounded by gardens that provide a succinct history of the commercial movements of the Dutch East India Company. Giant camphors of Japanese provenance provide shade for hydrangeas from Indonesia and camellias, azaleas and mulberries from China, while groves of oaks, elms and yellowwood provide a link to the mother country.
Visiting Vergelegen in 1705, Dutch reverend Francois Valentijn remarked: "I saw this place with exceptional pleasure, since everything there was laid out wonderfully finely." Visiting 306 years later, I agree.
Vergelegen, Lourensford Road, Somerset West. Open daily 9.30am-4pm, (Friday until 6.30pm). Admission, adults 10 rand, children five rand. vergelegen.co.za.
The writer travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and South African Tourism.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Cape Town via Singapore and Johannesburg. 13 10 11, singaporeair.com.
Need to know
The best time to visit the Cape's gardens is in spring (when the fynbos wildflowers are out) and in autumn (when the cool, wet weather has the gardens looking their verdant best).
The South African National Biodiversity Institute is responsible for managing many of the republic's gardens (including Kirstenbosch). www.sanbi.org/gardens.