Behind the scenes in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

Cape Town has been appointed world’s most biodiverse city, and its outstanding Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens are the perfect place to discover its ecosystems. This is probably what makes them one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world, attracting more than a million visitor a year.

The backdrop of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden with the green Nursery Ravine and Skeleton Gorge leading to the top of Table Mountain is majestic. Amidst a lush vegetation watered by a high rain catchment on the back side of the mountain plant collections are showcased in the perfectly curated garden where endemic species star. Actually since its creation back in 1913, indigenous species have always starred here – a very progressive vision back then making it world’s first garden of the sort. If a few exotic species offered by other gardens are showcased, the bulk of the rich collection really focuses on African plants.

Beyond the collections, Kirstenbosch has become a central point for Capetonians thanks to the many cultural events set up there: movie nights, concerts in the park, or picnics. On summer nights, locals flock to the main lawn with picnic blankets, food, and a few bottles of alcohol to enjoy the show. On concert night adults chitchat between songs, kids play on the lawn, the mixed crowd dances to the beat of the music… Whether it is for the cultural events, the hikes going up Table Mountain, or to admire the beauty of the precious plant collections, the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden attracts over a million visitors a year, making it one of the few botanical gardens in the world that are self-sustainable, and can even help support some of the other 9 botanical gardens of South Africa as well as the critical and much-needed conservation efforts.

Indeed, behind the scenes Kirstenbosch and more generally SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute) are at the leading edge of conservation thanks to the research centres. The garden in itself is part of the plant conservation effort by keeping them alive while educating the public. The research teams keep scouting for new sorts of plants and new populations of threatened species in order to conserve the biodiversity.

Phakamani, curator of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden’s rare and exotic plants stands by a short palm-looking tree. He explains passionately: “This is a cycad, a very slow-growing and rare plant. To our knowledge, there are only 100 specimens of this specific specie left in the wild, including 16 here. Their reproduction is complex and still a mystery involving male and female plants as well as a particular type of beetle.” As we notice how passionate he is about the very specific-looking tree Phakamani develops: “With cycads we go back to the dinosaur times 340 million years ago! After firns, cycads are the first plants we know that form seeds. Studying cycads allows us to pierce the secrets about the evolution of plants, plus they are deeply rooted in the African culture as they are believed to ward off evil spirits”. Today these very endemic cycads found in tropical and subtropical areas of the world are threatened by habitat loss and plant collectors.

To get a better idea of the depth of the research done here at Kirstenbosch, Phakamani takes us to the research centre. We walk through the mother nursery: here plants are grown from cuttings. The climate-controlled nurseries are delicate and cuttings are first put in a highly oxygenated soil in a warm environment to develop roots, before being transferred to a denser soil until they are ready to be planted in the gardens.

At the research centre Anisha welcomes us by a colourful vegetation map of South Africa that takes up a whole wall. A result of more than 10 years of collaborative efforts, Anisha is proud of being able to detail 459 different vegetation types. This vegetation mapping is critical to protect ecosystems and support governmental agencies in assessing where to create new national parks for instance. Looking more closely at the Cape area, we notice no less than 122 vegetation types for fynbos alone! This fine bush with its tiny and delicate leafs and colourful flowers compose the incredibly diverse Cape floral kingdom with 9,000 species, of which two thirds are endemic (i.e. growing nowhere else in the world). This is the smallest and richest floral kingdom on Earth. To picture it better: there are more plant species here around the Cape peninsula than in the whole of the UK!

Realizing the richness of South Africa’s biodiversity and the modern economic challenges faced by one of the BRICS countries, it is easy to understand why SANBI has so many missions. South Africa must meet the needs of its population – housing and job opportunities are critical – while protecting the flora. Farming has been an essential industry since the establishment of Cape Town. Today real estate development is key as affordable accommodation is needed for township populations while luxurious resorts in secluded areas provide job opportunities. To combine development and conservation SANBI works at:

  • convincing private land owners to convert their land into nature reserves,
  • researching the effects of pesticides in order to advise farmers on the optimal amounts to be used,
  • monitoring the environmental impact of GMO (corn, soya beans and cotton) on biodiversity,
  • assessing the status of the indigenous honeybees for crop pollination to improve the yield of the land,
  • populating seed banks (involving complex research projects about plant embryo freezing to prevent seeds from drying out when stored).
  • and many more missions…

While you visit the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden to enjoy its natural setting, a concert, movie, hike or sublime plant collection, have a thought for the teams working behind the scenes to conserve South Africa’s precious ecosystems for now and future generations.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • To plan your visit, refer to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden.
  • Do yourself a favour and attend a concert or movie in Kirstenbosch. Arrive early to visit the garden first, and then head to the lawn. The acoustics are really excellent especially for an outdoor stage and it will be the opportunity to discover some high quality local or international bands. Bring your own food and drinks.
  • You can hike up Table Mountain from Kirstenbosch via the shady Skeleton Gorge or the Nursery Ravine. A guide is recommended.
  • You can help! Download the iNaturalist app and join the worldwide team of volunteers contributing to the conservation effort.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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