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A South African Roadtrip to Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden

Exploring the garden that is frequently billed as “the most beautiful garden in Africa.”

From its dramatic perch on the eastern slope of South Africa’s Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is frequently billed as “the most beautiful garden in Africa.”

Cape Town’s acclaimed Botanical Garden is a World Heritage site that boasts an extraordinarily rich and diverse collection of South African flora. Tropical plants aren’t quick to divulge their secrets, but after a day spent at Kirstenbosch, one might easily be convinced that the fynbos region of South Africa is home to some of the most beautiful plants in the world.

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On a misty Spring day during a road trip through Cape Town, Garden Collage made a stop at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden to explore the flora of Sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on one plant in particular: the legendary King Protea, whose massive pink flowers are the stuff of local legend.

GC South Africa

King Protea is the national flower of South Africa and one that is endemic to the Western and Eastern Cape. It does not grow naturally anywhere else in the world. And of course: the plant is stunning.

Ranging in size from the diameter of a large sunflower up to the circumference of a small dinner plate, King Protea takes about 4 to 5 years to flower for the first time. Often referred to as “sugarbushes” or suikerbos in Afrikaans, the genus Protea was named in 1735 after the Greek god Proteus, who could change his form at will. At Kirstenbosch– and more broadly, across South Africa– there are 83 species of protea, all of which only occur in South Africa between the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Elsewhere, Kirstenbosch boasts an array of interesting plants that match the intrigue and splendor of the King.

Mandela’s Gold Strelitzia, a special breed of Crane Flowers named after local hero Nelson Mandela, took 20 years of hand-pollination to develop. “Mandela’s Gold” began at Kirstenbosch with the cross pollination of seven Yellow-flowering strelitzias, which are also known as “Bird-of-Paradise” or Crane Flower (because their boat-shaped structure make each flower look like a bird). The plant was introduced to the garden after successful pollination in 1996.

The wild gardenia grown in the indigenous garden has an eggy, woody shape that also takes a while to grow– about 35 years in total. Gardenia thunbergia (which you can see in the slideshow below) are eaten by Elephants, Buffalo, or large antelope like the Kudu, which is a deer-like bushveld-dweller whose meat can often be found on local South African menus.

Gardenia cannot be propagated without passing through the digestive system of an elephant, we learned, which means that if the world’s population of elephants and large game dies out, so will our ability to grow and harvest the plant.

Because gardenia is related to coffee and quinine, its roots are used to treat skin diseases and gall bladder problems, while its flowers (which bloom in South Africa from January to March) are white and heavily perfumed, with a scent that gets stronger at night.

Between the buchus (aromatic shrubs), the fynbos (a native flowering bush), and the numerous medicinal, indigenous, and native plants on display, a day spent at Kirstenbosch left us pondering the value of indigenous botanical gardens worldwide– but the real story of our trip is coded into the pictures.

There are stories coded into even the most innocuous plants on site; every flower harbors a secret layered in folklore, history, and myth. With a glorious view of Table Mountain as its backdrop, Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden is a must-see for any plant-lover making a trip to the Motherland– if for nothing more than the fact that there are plants here that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. South Africa– as we quickly learned– is exceedingly worth the trip.

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