One of my favourite botanical gardens in the whole world - Kirstenbosch - lies nestled in the foothills of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa. Not only is the flora and fauna absolutely spectacular, but it is also beautifully laid out and preserved in the wild kind of way that I have come to love. It is for good reasons considered one of the five most important botanical gardens of the world, acting as a champion of building biodiversity knowledge. The area spans an impressive total of 528 hectares of which only 36 hectares are cultivated, leaving the rest as a conservation area for indigenous species.
The gardens were founded in 1913 with the aim of preserving the native flora of the region, and in doing so became the first botanical garden to recognise the importance of native flora to the land. The beginnings were humble and filled with challenges, but slowly over a century it has evolved through being successively administered by the Botanical Society of South Africa, the National Botanic Gardens of South Africa, the National Botanical Institute, and the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI from 2004), to become the paradise it is today.
Much of the work revolves around conservation of species, with some delightful wins along the way. The beautiful shrub Erica verticillata that is pictured above is one of the most heartening examples. It used to grow all along the way from the Black River cottages near Mowbray in the north, at Rondebosch, Newlands, Claremont, Kenilworth, Wynberg and as far south as Zeekoevlei, but over the years became extinct during the mid 1900's due to mans ruthless cultivation of the land. However, the seeds had been distributed to various botanical gardens, including Kew gardens, and in 1984 it was rediscovered in a park in Pretoria which led to the successful reintroduction. Nowadays there are eight cultivars of it growing in Kirstenbosch and it has successfully been reintroduced to Rondevlei Nature Reserve, Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area and the Tokai Park which are all under management of the South African National Parks.
Not only is biodiversity fostered, but there is also a fundamental awareness and record of the traditional healing properties of many of the plants. Some of them have been researched with scientific methods, like the modest Bulbine frutescens pictured below which has anti-itching properties and provides healing, soothing and moisturising qualities when used in skin care, while some are simply recorded for future exploration. Many plants have medicinal use, and there is a drive to develop medicine from such traditional sources.
Last but not least, Kirstenbosch is a beautiful garden experience! It is well worth getting there early if you plan to see it in summer, as it is quite enormous and set on a slope so it may be tiring to walk in the midday heat. There are guided tours each day at 10 am and 2 pm, that are free of charge and open to all visitors and if you have a chans then do tag along as they are absolutely brilliant!