Around Cape Town: Kirstenbosch Gardens

On my way again, passing the Mount Nelson Hotel, an elite establishment that caters to people who value their privacy. The driver shared a story that speaks to my age group.

A woman saw a scruffy young man on the lawn in the hotel, and called security to deal with him. The young man was John Lennon, practicing yoga in the early morning on the lawn.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch had installed a “canopy walk” through its treetops, and I headed for that. Along the way, I walked across the lawns, where Kirstenbosch has summertime concerts. Sadly, my visit was poorly timed to attend any, but I would certainly try to another time (!) because the venue is beautiful.

The Canopy Walk began with the ramp going up.

The tree canopy is a roof of leaves that allows the trees to gather all the sunlight they need. Their leaves serve as their food factory, making the carbohydrates by photosynthesis, and supports the tree’s growth. More leaves catching sunlight means more food for the tree.

While the top canopy captures most of the sunlight, the middle story (shorter trees,) the understory, and the forest floor benefit from reduced heat, wind protection, and increased humidity, plus the leaves falling from the tree canopy improve the soil quality, so it all works together.

The Kirstenbosch Forest is a planted and gardened forest with 450 species from all over Africa, that was developed in the 1980s, although the Gardens have a much longer history. Some of the older specimens are natural, but most are relative youngsters.

The “Afromontane Forest,” as a type, is a natural forest and covers a mere 0.5% of southern Africa. It exists mainly in small, sheltered pockets called “kloofs.” Kloofs are usually widely separated, scattered in the mountains from the western Cape to the Arabian Peninsula. Throughout its range, however, these forest kloofs contain a similar mix of plant species and evergreens – endemic species that are very different from the surrounding vegetation.

It is unknown what the forests were like before the Dutch arrived in 1652, as the East Indian Dutch Company, or “the Company.” The Dutch referred to the slopes as “Bosbergen,” meaning “forest mountains.” Scientists speculate that it was not all true forest, but that some was scrub forest or woodland.

The Khoisan, the first people, collected plants for food and medicine, and saplings for poles, but did not otherwise impact the forest. It was mainly fire that kept the forest confined to the kloofs.

The Dutch established permanent re-supply stations at the Cape and began harvesting timber from the forests for ship repairs, wagon, and firewood. By 1872, all of the large trees were gone, and only firewood was harvested. The VOC owned the land until the British Occupation of 1795.

In the 1800s, the land was farmed by the various owners. Some planted nut trees, others added oaks, and later pine trees and eucalyptuses. The last private owner, Cecil John Rhodes, bequeathed the estate to the South African Forestry Department when he died in 1902.

Kirstenbosch Gardens was founded as a 1,300 acre botanical garden in 1913, at the beginning of WWI. “Kirsten” is believed to be the surname of a land manager of the 1700s, and “Bosch” is a Dutch word for forest or bush. It is currently operated by South African Biodiversity Institute.

Kirstenbosch Gardens was created primarily to be a place of scientific study, but that didn’t meant it couldn’t also be beautiful, which it is. The Gardens benefited from two men who devoted their careers to Kirstenbosch’s scientific mission: Robert Compton, who was the Director of the gardens from 1919-1953, and Harold Pearson, Professor of Botany at the University of Cape Town from 1919-1953. Professor Compton founded the Gardens Herbarium in 1939. A herbarium is a collection of plant samples that are identified, dried, and preserved for future reference. Today the “Compton Herbarium” contains over 750,000 specimens, providing an archival record of 12,000 species, and is the second largest collection in southern Africa. Professor Pearson, also an active collector of plants, contributed over 35,000 specimens, and described 200 new species. In 1919, Kirstenbosch Gardens had two sheds and a shack for an office. When these two men retired, Kirstenbosch Gardens was a well-known facility with 60,000 specimens, publishing the Journal of South African Botany.

Like anyone who gardens, I was excited to find one of my favorite flowers here: Crocosmia. Here, the popular name is Falling Stars. They were a little past their prime here, but colorful even so:

“Crocosmia aura” are part of the Iris family (Iridocae,) and are shade-loving perennials that grow mainly in the summer. In cold winter areas, they become dormant. In their native habitat, Falling Stars grow along streambanks and in wooded kloofs from the Cape north to tropical Africa. It is a vigorous spreader.

In the wild, birds eat the seeds and bush pigs eat the corms, which is the rootstock type. People used the corms to treat dysentery.

Crocosmia means “smelling of saffron,” from “krokos,” which is Greek for saffron. According to Kirstenbosch, if you put dried Crocosmia into warm water, it will emit the odor of saffron.

There was a large collection of Cycads, a family of plants that survived the extinction of dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, during the great “die-off,” when 75% of all life on Earth was extinguished. Some survived, and Cycads lived. Cycads are the Sago Palm family, shown here with dinosaur sculptures to emphasize the Cycads’ history.

South Africa has the highest number of Cycad species on the planet: 38. Of these, 28 species are threatened with extinction, 3 are extinct in the wild, more will probably join them. “Extinct in the wild” is to be “ecologically extinct.” Plants that do not grow in the wild do not interact with their ecosystem, including pollinators or predators. It causes an imbalance in nature that may negatively impact other plants or animals.

What happened? 75% of these extinctions are due to theft/poaching. Plants in the wild are stolen and sold to unscrupulous collectors or unsuspecting gardeners, so that there are not enough wild plants to produce the seeds necessary to create a new generation. Habitat destruction (mainly farming) and plants killed by bark-stripping for traditional medications account for another 26% of extinctions.

As I walked away feeling sad about cycads, I found something cheerier. Look in the upper center of the photo:

It’s a Black-legged Golden Orb-web Spider. They are harmless to humans, but they are big. Their Latin name is “Nephila fenestrata,” nephila means “fond of spinning,” and “fenestrata” indicates the window-shaped black mark on their body. This spider is a female, and is many times bigger than a male. The male is about 2.5 cm long, but the female gets to be 12 cm long, which includes her long legs. Sometimes these spiders join their webs together, creating a nearly impenetrable curtain of webs. (I wouldn’t like that.) The webs are supposed to catch insects, but sometimes they catch small birds. The spiders don’t harm the birds, but the birds damage the web trying to get away. These spiders only live for a few months. They hatch in the spring, become noticeable in size around from January to June. Male and female mate, the female lays her eggs, then dies soon afterward. They don’t say, but the cold must kill the males.

A long walk in the hot sun wears me out, so I called it a day and wandered back to the main gate. The bus collected us again, and we returned to the tour center along the beaches. It was gray and rainy here, but it’s very local – other spots were quite sunny.

Along the shore, there are a number of luxury apartments. The guide says they are occupied by famous people who prefer them because, as you get closer, the buildings are not visible from the street.

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