A jewel in the nation’s crown

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Copy of cz SugarbirdProtea

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A sugarbird on a sugarbush. Pictures: tim rolston

Cape Town - This year marks the centenary of the National Botanical Garden of Kirstenbosch. The concept of preserving the nation’s unique flora was at the time a remarkable act of forward thinking and Kirstenbosh was the first botanical garden in the world with such aims.

It is now one of nine national botanical gardens covering five of South Africa’s six different biomes. Back in 1913 there was little focus on such matters as biodiversity or preservation of the natural world.

A glimpse at other notable events in the same year shows that much of the world was focused on entirely different problems.

Jim Thorpe, considered by some as the greatest athlete of the century, was stripped of his Olympic medals for breaching the “amateur code” (some 30 years after his death they were reinstated) but today it is hard to imagine someone losing out as a result of a being paid to play a couple of games of semi-professional baseball.

Emily Davison, a British suffragette, campaigning for the right of women to vote in the UK threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the English Derby and was killed. Again, remarkable now to think that women had been denied the vote until so recently.

In Sheffield, Harry Brearley produced the world’s first true stainless steel.

Copy of cz Pincushion

A pincushion protea

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In Russia Pyotr Nesterov flew the first loop in a plane and a rival in France, Adolphe Pégoud, was the first man to parachute out of one.

Here in South Africa, the controversial Native Land Act was signed into law, the harbinger of the apartheid system and yet during the same year, the idea of setting aside land, (originally left to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes in 1902), for the study and preservation of the world’s most diverse plant kingdom came to fruition.

The garden remains the jewel in the crown of South African botanical study and one of the most valued of such institutions in the world. For the less green of finger, myself included, it also represents a most wonderful asset to the people of Cape Town, a glorious place for a casual stroll, an informative guided tour or simply a convenient location for a wonderful picnic, surrounded by some of the best scenery the Mother City has to offer.

On an extremely hot day I took myself off for a wander, knowing there would always be shaded pathways to ameliorate the beating sun, cool dells of trickling spring water and, dare I say it, “50 shades of green” to explore.

I set off past Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, the remnants of a barrier of bitter almonds originally laid out in 1659 by the Dutch administrators of the colony as a protection from the invading cattle of the local Khoikhoi. (Not only can one find magnificent flora in the garden but it is a veritable mine of historical information). From there I wandered rather aimlessly, already saddened that I would never have the time to do the garden justice with this single visit.

Many of the proteas were in bloom, and a large stand of sugarbush was home to a chittering and chattering group of Cape sugarbirds, long tails waving in the slight breeze, niggling at one another in an effort to protect their own portions of the food supply. The sugarbirds have an intimate relationship with the plants, the plants providing them with shelter and food in the form of nectar and the birds in return being almost solely responsible for the pollination of the flowers.

It is just one of many such close relationships to be found in the diverse and highly specialised Cape Floral Kingdom.

There was more drama when a group of gardeners came across a puffadder – their squawking and mumbling doing a good imitation of the sugarbirds. Alas, closer inspection showed the snake to be dead.

There was no indication as to what had caused the adder’s demise, but it saddened me none the less. Although I don’t relish the thought of a snake bite I do love to see them, part of the natural world and wonderfully camouflaged reptiles, pretty in their own way.

I continued on my way, relishing the numerous flowering plants, the spectacular diversity of the colours, lots of different ericas on display, the oddities such as the balloon peas, and avoiding disturbing the occasional ambling tortoise. I took a cool shaded path past the “Bird Bath” which was originally built by Colonel Bird and has, with some modifications, endured for two centuries, with bubbling crystal clear water year round.

Near the gate there is a highly informative display of old photos indicating various stages of development of the site, detailing the immense amount of work that has been and continues to be done in this most glorious of gardens.

Born at a time of historical turmoil it still delights, preserves and protects a true national treasure. - Sunday Argus

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