Why you should care
Visitors flock to popular Kirstenbosch, but the real garden star is its unassuming younger sibling.
A tiny, iridescent orange-breasted sunbird vies with a pair of larger Cape sugarbirds for the nectar buried in the fist-sized crimson blooms of the suikerbossie, aka sugarbush. A few yards away, on the banks of a cola-colored stream, a forest of marsh butterfly lilies and their foot-long golden flower spikes sways pendulously in the breeze. Even on the deliberately unmown lawns, it’s impossible not to trample the pink, blue and yellow blooms of the myriad bulbs buried just below the surface.
Spring is a special time in the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden, but in truth there’s always something showing off. Move aside, Amazon Rainforest — the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa, with 9,500 plant species (including 6,500 endemic) squeezed into an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, is the most botanically biodiverse place on the planet.
Pity, then, that while most visitors to Cape Town include a visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden on their itineraries, only a smattering make it as far as Harold Porter, some 60 miles away. Don’t get me wrong. Kirstenbosch, on the slopes of Table Mountain, is great. But its mandate to showcase plant species from all over South Africa does make it a bit of a plant zoo. “We only focus on species found in the Overberg Region,” says Harold Porter nurseryman Ebrahim Hull. “And we’re much cheaper and quieter too.”
Hull, who has become an accomplished botanical artist since picking up a paintbrush in 2010, says Harold Porter’s five main display gardens provide a great crash course in fynbos (to give the Cape Floristic Region its unpretentious nickname). The Erica (860 species of heath with delicate blooms) and Proteaceae (1,660 species of bushes and trees with flowers ranging from large to enormous) gardens showcase the region’s two most famous flower families, while the Wetlands (the boardwalk is great for kids), Dune and Renosterveld gardens give insight into the various habitats in the area.
However hard you look, there’s one plant you won’t find in the garden itself.
But visitors should also check out the garden’s wild, unkempt sections. Hull advises starting with Leopard’s Kloof Gorge (a two-hour round-trip hike — complete with ladders and chains — to a forest wonderland of ferns and waterfalls) before continuing on the contour path (great ocean views and one of Hull’s favorite places to paint Ericas) to Disakloof, the garden’s other main watercourse. Here, after crossing a wooden bridge into a forested section, a flattish path leads to a spectacular waterfall that, in the summer months between December and February, is coated with the delicate red blooms of the Cape disa.
However hard you look, there’s one plant you won’t find in the garden itself. The Marsh Rose, with its “exceptionally lovely, drooping rosy-red flowerheads,” is found only in “six small, severely fragmented subpopulations,” in the mountains above Betty’s Bay according to the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Hull could tell you how to find one of these populations (a three-hour uphill scramble with no path and very few landmarks), but because of the vulnerability of the species he’d rather not.
He’s got a better idea. Simply walk out of the garden and across the road to Robbie Thomas’ house. Provided you visit in the cooler months, when the Marsh Rose blooms, Thomas — an expert propagator whose wife, Vicky, happens to be Hull’s botanical art mentor — will be happy to show you the specimens he has grafted.
This isn’t Kirstenbosch, remember.
GO THERE: Harold Porter National Botanical Garden
- Where: The 1.5-hour drive from Cape Town to Betty’s Bay includes a spectacular 20-mile section of coastline between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els that is an attraction in itself. Map.
- When: The best times to visit are September to November or December to February, when the disas bloom.
- The nitty-gritty: Open every day from 8 am to 4:30 pm (5 pm on weekends and public holidays). Entrance fee is R28 ($2) for adults and less for students, pensioners and kids.
- Pro tip: Guided tours must be arranged ($0.50 per person!) in advance (email Harold.firstname.lastname@example.org). Ebrahim Hull or one of the other resident experts would love to show you around.
- Thirsty work: The garden has a lovely tea room and restaurant next to an idyllic pond, with great mountain views. It’s popular among humans and baboons alike, so hang on to your jam scone!