EXPLORING GARDENS IN SOUTH AFRICA, Part I
by Ruby Weinberg
Nelson Mandela’s Beloved Country is a Joy To Behold
Many years ago, my naturalist friend Edmond LaPorte showed me photos of South African plants, especially proteas. They were gorgeous--and I was hooked! My husband promised me that one day we would make the trip to S.A., a 14 ½ hour air flight from New York to Johannesburg. And so we did--quite some time later.
I planned a five week trip by writing to garden owners in advance, renting a car in places (yes, left side of the road driving!), and booking several short interior flights. Visiting botanical gardens was prime on our agenda, but that rarely requires prior arrangements. We got there when we got there! Some gardens contain only native flora. Others are a combination with introduced plants from temperate climates. Interesting design was something that I also wanted to investigate.
It was a warm, dry mid-September day when we arrived in Johannesburg. Spring! The lawns were just beginning to green and the temperature was from the mid-70s to a high of 85 degrees without much humidity. Of course, this is a reversal of seasons from the states.
Our travel occurred when apartheid was over. Perhaps this allowed us to experience a short, rather pleasant friendship with every South African who crossed our path. But then, much of our time was spent in peaceful surroundings.
It was the grape, the diamond, and the gold nugget that brought great wealth to many Caucasians in South Africa. Luckily for garden lovers, many of these prosperous immigrants used some of their fortune for building splendid landscapes as part of their farm estates or baronial mansions. Great attention was given to terraces and walls, pathways, and pergolas. From what we observed, this must have also inspired many small property owners to take advantage of the wonderful growing climate--somewhat like many areas of Colorado, California and Hawaii.
Brenthurst, on Federation Road in Parktown near Johannesburg, is one of the larger estates. Situated on a sunny slope (facing North in the southern hemisphere) it has been the home of Bridget and Harry Oppenheimer. Their landscape designer, Beth Still, arranged a two morning visit for us after reading my note to Mrs. Oppenheimer. A personal request for admittance to a garden, I discovered, is often the key to a welcoming invitation.
The property was the home of Harry’s father, the mining magnet Sir Ernest, who selected the site in 1922. The house had been placed on a rocky plateau set on a steep ridge called a “koppie” with a magnificent view of 40 miles. The design of the garden changed many times, especially during World War II when the Oppenheimers permitted the use of their house as a hospital for wounded soldiers. Later, Harry renovated the building and employed landscape architect Joane Pim to transform the 40 acre property into a plant lover’s paradise.
Brenthurst contains 70% native flora including trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials. To see some of this, impelled ever upward, the visitor comes upon two white-washed columns connected with an arch from which hangs a bell indicating the time for the slaves who once worked here. Closer to the house, the scene includes alpines planted on rocky ledges, placid pools, several bronze statues, a Japanese garden, a rushing waterfall, etc. The entire garden is backed by a wall of sheer rock, but near one of these high areas was a detail that I particularly remember--an exquisite dove cote with Cape Dutch gables.
What a staging this is for lovely plants! To mention only a few; we enjoyed Canary Island cinerarias in purple, mauves, and pinks, and in several places, pretty yellow native pin-cushions such as cotulas. Of the many bog plants, the native Wachendorfia thyrisiflora is arresting. It has tall panicles of mustard colored flowers.
And then, in several places, we found beautiful native clivias (native bush lilies) rather familiar to me because I once grew a few as potted plants. Another lovely perennial here is Geranium incanum, a subtropical species of many plants in my own garden. However, unlike my geraniums, I was told that they bloom every month of the year. Of the proteas, I don’t remember any flowering here but we would see multitudes later in our trip.
Beth Still and her husband, Rod, have a lovely home garden. They were growing many vegetables along with ornamentals. It was in the Still garden that I found the first protea I was to see in S.A.-- the elegant Leucospermum ‘Scarlet Ribbon.’
Before leaving Johannesburg, Beth gave us directions to the city’s botanical garden, 370 acres located near the Emmertia Dam on Olifants Street. The rationale behind these plantings was to inspire gardeners to create superior home landscapes. Upon our arrival, literally thousands of roses were just beginning to bloom. A “tea” pergola is open week-ends with lectures, flower shows, etc., all part of the agenda. Meeting briefly with Patrick Chambers, the garden’s information officer at the time, we were told: “South Africa’s most significant achievement is that its people have set aside so many preserves for native plants.” Soon, we would discover how right he was!
Our next destination, Cape Town, is about a two-hour flight from Johannesburg. The province itself is the home to more than 8500 species of native plants. Stretching along part of S.A.’s western corner and southern route, it has been listed as one of the six major floral kingdoms of the world. The vegetation here, collectively called “the fynbos”, describes dense, shrubby plants of tremendous diversity. No one species is dominant over another. For its size, only tropical rain forests can compete in numbers.
It was late afternoon when we rented a car here and drove south to Constantia. Our destination was the lovely Cellars-Hohenort Hotel where its staff horticulturist, Jean Almon, greeted us. For 2l years now, Jean has been working at Cellars as well as escorting guests to some of the area’s best private gardens.
First, we viewed one of the hotel’s lush perennial borders from our second story bedroom window. Walking around the hotel, we admired its huge, aged camphor trees, massive beds of bluebells, lush plectrathus beds, native dieramas, Madiera Island geraniums, echiums, etc. We also enjoyed Jean’s smaller compelling features such as a terrace knot garden using low herbs with bronze and silver foliage.
The next day, Jean took us to Hawthornden, a house constructed in 1881 and rescued from its derelict past by Count and Countess Labia. Its all-white French creole facade was striking with a white perennial foundation planting including a native Watsonia. The Labia’s exquisite garden is especially rich in magnificent roses. And from this garden, as elsewhere in the entire area, Table Mountain looms in the distance.
As if directed by the mountain, Jean then brought us to Stellenberg in the town of Kenilworth. The seven acre Ovenstone property, with its 1800s manor house, also carries a white theme including large white wisterias on the house and pergola. The English style beds and borders contain a huge variety of perennials and many subtropical shrubs such as datura, mandevillea, and India hawthorne While we studied the complex design and plantings, the family golden retriever knew how to cool off on that exceptionally hot day. He jumped into the swimming pool!
With an appointment and driving directions from Jean Almon, we spent another day at Rustenberg, the Barlow home, about an hour east of Cellars. Pam Barlow, a widow, told us that her son was running their large wine producing farm leaving her more time for gardening. In one place, roses of every sort were just beginning to bloom. Her sunken garden surrounds a brick wall in a froth of flowering cascaders. I especially enjoyed viewing the “one color” areas with single plantings in reds or pinks or blues. A grassy strip several hundred feet long is lush with a variety of plants--too much to take in on a short visit. Pam, herself, died 3 years ago, but her daughter-in-law, Roxanne Barlow, has since redesigned and replanted areas of this fine showplace of a garden.
On another day, Jean Almon directed us to the valley of the Jonkershoekberge Mountains where a National Monument garden is located. Called Old Nectar, the widow Una Vanderspuy came here in 1941 just as her husband was called off to the wars. The entire five acre garden is on a steep grade; yet, without much help, Una renovated the 1780 Cape Dutch home and built a five acre garden with a small swimming pool. It required endlessly pushing barrels of earth and supplies up and down the hills. Eventually, she planted almost every inch with beautiful lawns, shrubs and trees. Una died in 2013, shortly before her 100th birthday, but her garden is still maintained and open to visitors. It is truly a monument to woman’s endurance.
An hour’s trip to the town of Stellenbosch was also part of our itinerary. Here, we studied the plants in a university teaching garden called Hortus Botanicus. Known for its large collection of pelargonium plants as well as its extensive succulent holdings, we were disappointed at the garden’s disarray during our visit.
As a youngster interested in history, I was intrigued by the discovery of S.A. by Portugal‘s Bartolomeu Diaz in 1488, and ten years later, Vasco DaGama’s 14 explorations around the Cape of Good Hope. DaGama was the first sea captain to sail around the tip of Africa where the Atlantic joins the Indian Ocean. The statues of these two explorers are everywhere in the area.
But it is native plants that always intrigues me most. My husband and I spent all of one day driving down and back from Cape Point where we found occasional low, red flowering shrubs with silver foliage called Sutherlandia fruitescens. At the steep terminal, Cape Hope, there are beautiful views of the two oceans meeting. Every now and then we came upon a protea such as Leucospermum conocarpodendron…a long name hard to remember. There are so many wild proteace in the country (322) that I gave up trying to identify all of them that we observed.
At a scenic outpost, we left our car for a few minutes. It was then that a baboon mother and her babe, looking to do mischief, climbed onto our car’s “wind screen.” Before the rest of her thieving family joined her, we sped away.
Stay Tuned for EXPLORING GARDENS IN SOUTH AFRICA Part II to be published in April, when Ruby Weinberg explores Kirstenbosh and The Garden Route.
**All photos by Martin Weinberg
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published March 09, 2014