Traveling in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

A century after Banks’ and Masson’s involvement at the Cape, the Director of Kew, Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, strengthened his association with southern African botany when he took on the daunting task of completing the Flora Capensis project initiated by William Henry Harvey in the 1860s (see page 87). Thiselton-Dyer encouraged his young assistant, Harold Pearson, to go to the Cape in 1902 to head the department of Botany at the South African College. Pearson was to drive the establishment of Kirstenbosch and, in 1913, appointed Kew-trained horticulturist Joseph William Mathews as his right-hand man. Between 1913 and 2013 four Kewites (Mathews, Thorns, Werner and Winter) served as curators, spanning a period of some 75 years.

In this early map of the Garden (c. 1930s), note the original alignment of Rhodes Drive. Several features have disappeared since the 1930s, including the central car park, the Swamp, Oak Forest, and the Economic Plants sections, but much of the Garden’s original landscape design has remained unchanged.

Traveling in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Photo Gallery




During much of Compton’s term, Joseph ‘Jimmy’ Mathews continued laying out the hard landscaping of the Garden, making full use of locally cut sandstone, including building an enormous and successful rockery; this feature was named after him in 1950, some years after his retirement in 1936. The heavy winter rainfall made the building of storm-water drains, dry-stone walls, cobbled paths and other hard landscaping essential. this was done by hand, led by Robbie Smith (master stonemason for 40 years), leaving a rich legacy to the Garden that was his abiding passion. Hot dry summers made it essential to develop reservoirs and irrigation systems, fed by the Garden’s three perennial streams – its lifeblood. Mathews had started introducing and trying out indigenous plants from throughout the country – planting them in the nursery, testing their ability to grow in the particular soil and climatic conditions of Kirstenbosch, and gradually bringing them into the Garden’s fl ower beds. The progress made in the early decades of the Garden by Mathews and his small team was, in compton’s words, ‘truly phenomenal’. Aloe arborescens blooms in the foreground with a large Euphorbia ingens in the middle distance – the same specimen as in the top photo.

This wonderful painted panorama of Kirstenbosch from its earliest days appeared in the 1917 edition of the Journal of the South African Botanical Society, forerunner of today’s Veld & Flora magazine. Clearly indicated are: (1) the Camphor Avenue leading up towards Constantia Nek; (10) the original entrance road leading from Bishopscourt; (29) the ‘Cape Chestnut Avenue ’, which Compton described as ‘leading from nowhere to nowhere ’; and (42) the old ‘Trolley Track’, which serviced the building of the reservoirs on the summit of Table Mountain. A photograph from the 1920s shows the slopes on which the protea and erica sections were developed in the 1960s.

The builders of Kirstenbosch: in 1973 Brian Rycroft presented gold watches to eight Kirstenbosch stalwarts, each with more than 25 years ’ service – Abraham Basson, William Basson, Frank Krieger, David Mclean, John Fredericks, Brian Rycroft, George Basson,

The only vehicle that the Garden possessed was a ‘ralli-cart ’, seen here in 1932 with Winsome ‘Buddy’ Barker (first Curator of the Compton Herbarium), James Nicholas (trap driver) and Nelson, the loyal horse.

In the early years, the only vehicle that the Garden possessed was a ‘ralli-cart’ – a two-wheeled driving trap for four. This carried Compton from the Garden down to Claremont Station to take the train in to the city, where a tramcar would get him to the University, then located near the present South African Museum. Mail, supplies and staff were all transported in the ralli-cart – there was no staff bus, no lorries, no tractors, no digger/loaders – just a few wheelbarrows, a sledge and a cart!

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