As far as botanical gardens go, they don’t get much better than Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens in Cape Town. The backdrop of Table Mountain is a magnificent setting for the diverse collection of plants from the different climatic regions of South Africa, starting with the indigenous Fynbos that grows naturally above the gardens, on the slopes of the mountain. Fynbos from the temperate south is joined by succulent plants from the Karoo, subtropical plants from the east coast and trees from the afromontane region, such as Afrocarpus falcatus (syn. Podocarpus falcatus) . In fact the treetop walk is one of the many highlights of the gardens. Spectacular plantings of cycads—some of the specimens are older than the gardens—fill a natural gully. There is so much for the landscape designer in this garden, with plants for sun and shade, for dry conditions and damp, and so much colour and texture!

Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’

Some of these plants are familiar and some are brand new to my eyes. Some back home are cherished garden plants, others are dreaded weeds. The similar climates of various regions of South Africa and Australia means that so many plants from Southern Africa thrive in Australia, for good and for ill. So for a landscape designer, caution is advised when trying out new South African plants, especially in country or bushland settings.

Kirstenbosch is administered by South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). SANBI have nine botanic gardens throughout the country, to showcase the flora of different climatic zones. I made the trek to the Karoo Desert Botanic Gardens in Worcester, Western Cape, and was amazed by the diversity of succulent plants that can and do thrive here in Australian gardens, such as euphorbias, aloes and the many species of the Azoaceae such as Drosanthemum floribundum.

The Fynbos

Leucospermum reflexum cultivar with Melianthus major, restios, ground covering shrublets, perennials and bulbs

The Fynbos is fascinating. Defined as being shrubland of hard-leaved evergreens that grow between one to three metres, this heath-like community of predominantly fine-leaved plants thrives in the impoverished soils of the Western Cape and parts of Eastern Cape. They have adapted to the winter rainfall, summer aridity of the southernmost parts of Africa. The aridity in summer and the resultant frequency of fires have prevented the growth of forests and insured the heathland characteristics of the Fynbos. The Fynbos dominates the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is the smallest of the six recognised floral kingdoms, chosen for its astounding diversity of species and for the high number of endemic species that occur there.

Leucospermum

Many familiar garden and floristry species (proteas, leucadendrons, leucospermums, serrurias) are well represented. In stunning contrast, there are the restios or reeds that burst out of the groupings like brown, russet and green fireworks. Then there are the myriad other plants, such as the small-flowered shrubs that have a more diffuse existence, in amongst the bravura statements of the ‘big’ flowers and reeds. These innumerable species of small shrubs form a mid-layer to the fynbos and at the ground level there are the abundant species of perennials, grasses, bulbs and corms, many of which have made there way into horticulture around the world.

Leucospermum

As a garden designer, I have been inspired to think about the layering of the plants in the fynbos and the interplay of textures and how garden combinations that mimic this configuration could easily be made using plant material from temperate Australia and Mediterranean and other homoclimes around the world. It has made me think about how indigenous plantings are at the heart of the creation of a localised style that is distinctive and sustainable and how very fortunate we are in the temperate parts of the southern hemisphere to have access to such spectacular and diverse plant material that suits our climate. Kirstenbosch is certainly a place to go to be stimulated as well as to be transfixed by the beauty of the natural world. MH