There’s plenty of good hope in the Cape

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Alan Titch­marsh Next week: Mid­win­ter trees

HOL­I­DAY­ING abroad at the height of sum­mer has al­ways struck me as a bit of a waste. Although un­de­ni­ably a lit­tle overblown dur­ing the month of Au­gust, the Bri­tish gar­den is still a good place to be—break­fast on the ter­race, lunches at a tres­tle ta­ble among the trees in a cor­ner of the meadow, evening drinks in the sum­mer house, wasps in the gin—no, for­get that bit.

Sum­mer is sum­mer and I don’t want to miss it, but when Novem­ber and De­cem­ber have sunk their teeth into the gar­den and all is mud and soggy leaves, then this English­man’s fancy turns to thoughts of sun­nier climes. Our break is gen­er­ally taken in the New Year, when Christ­mas is still a happy mem­ory and be­fore the dim light of Fe­bru­ary de­presses. How­ever, this year, we ven­tured abroad ear­lier—to a friend’s daugh­ter’s wedding in South Africa at the end of Novem­ber.

Cape Town was our des­ti­na­tion, a vi­brant coastal city pos­sessed of a com­fort­able cli­mate with tem­per­a­tures around 25˚C and most of the time a gen­tle breeze. The V&A Wa­ter­front, named after Queen Vic­to­ria and her son Prince Al­fred, is rich in restau­rants and boat­ing ac­tiv­ity, but, for a gar­dener, the ‘must see’ des­ti­na­tion is Kirsten­bosch, the na­tional botanic gar­den, on the east­ern slopes of the ma­jes­tic Ta­ble Moun­tain.

I’ve been there on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions be­fore, but the im­pact the gar­dens had this time was greater than ever. The Cape flora is renowned as be­ing one of the rich­est and most di­verse in the world. Fyn­bos, that mix­ture of plants and scrub that typ­i­fies the tip of South­ern Africa, com­prises a cor­nu­copia of plant riches from proteas and Cape heaths to fleshyleaved suc­cu­lents and restios, those strange reed-like plants that sug­gest an aris­to­cratic mare’s tail.

Founded in 1913, Kirsten­bosch is a trea­sure trove of en­demic and in­dige­nous South African flow­ers, trees and shrubs that will make any plants­man drool. Hap­pily, it also im­pressed the wife of this plants­man, whose knowl­edge of botan­i­cal Latin is min­i­mal, but whose ap­pre­ci­a­tion of beauty is well de­vel­oped.

The gar­den’s sit­u­a­tion is a great ad­van­tage: Ta­ble Moun­tain tow­ers above and, in the far dis­tance, Cape Town can be seen nestling on the plain that stretches to the At­lantic.

The best views of the city are from the gar­den’s newly con­structed tree-canopy walk­way or Boom­slang, which means ‘tree snake’, and that’s what this sin­u­ous tree­top path­way does, wind­ing its way through the tops of the trees for 425ft, some 40ft above the ground. The sen­sa­tion is de­light­ful and spec­tac­u­lar, not only for the views, but also for the prox­im­ity to the tree­tops and the colour­ful birds that pop­u­late them.

The slop­ing ground of Kirsten­bosch is a great ad­van­tage, as there are fine views of plants and flow­ers, trees and shrubs in all direc­tions: an am­phithe­atre of cy­cads, a grove of ‘sil­ver trees’ (Leu­ca­den­dron ar­gen­teum), now threat­ened in the wild, but guar­an­teed sur­vival in this gar­den, where their tow­er­ing cock­ades of sil­very leaves daz­zle in the sun­shine.

Proteas, the na­tional flower of South Africa, have their own area on the up­per slopes of the gar­den. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to reach out and feel the springy flow­ers of leu­cosper­mums to see if they are real, to stroke the queen protea’s outer petals, wrap­ping around the cen­tral clus­ter of flo­rets, and to sigh over bor­der after bor­der of sky­blue aga­pan­thus.

So rich and di­verse is the col­lec­tion here that the ar­eas of grass that sweep be­tween beds and bor­ders give wel­come respite from this em­bar­ras de richesses, breath­ing spa­ces that com­ple­ment the na­tive flora and add to its im­pres­sive­ness and which also al­low par­ties of ex­cited school­child­ren to pause and fill in the ques­tion­naire fas­tened to their clip­boards. Their laugh­ter and en­joy­ment rang out through the gar­den in a way that re­as­sured us just how trea­sured is this na­tional plant col­lec­tion.

Of all the for­eign gar­dens I’ve vis­ited, Kirsten­bosch takes the prize as the one whose plants are most im­pact­ful. It’s a gar­dener’s gar­den, where plants are revered for their own qual­i­ties and trea­sured be­cause they’re the coun­try’s legacy.

The im­pact the gar­dens had this time was greater than ever’

My Se­cret Gar­den by Alan Titch­marsh is pub­lished by BBC Books (£25)

Ta­ble Moun­tain forms a dra­matic back­drop to the breath­tak­ing flora of Kirsten­bosch gar­dens

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