Kirstenbosch Gardens has a fascinating history that dates back to a time long before Western explorers set foot in the Cape. By the time the first Europeans sailed around the Cape in the 1400s, the Khoikhoi people had been using the land for more than 2000 years, as indicated by the discovery of artefacts, including hand axes and various implements which were found in the region.
Following Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival in 1652, settlers spread across the Cape looking for fertile land and reliable timber supplies. In 1657, a stretch of land which included present day Kirstenbosch was demarcated to provide a steady supply of wood for the settlement. The land ran through important Khoikhoi grazing routes, and after running conflicts between the Khoikhoi and the settlers, Van Riebeeck barricaded the section with fences and eventually a hedge of Wild Almond trees and thorny brambles – sections of which, known as Van Riebeeck’s Hedge, still survive in the gardens to this day.
The name Kirstenbosch was only established years later, in 1795, and in 1811, during the second British occupation, it was divided and sold. The region only became the site for the botanical gardens a century later, when botanist Harold Pearson came upon the location. The Botanical Society was formed, and over the following years the enthusiastic founders and board members ensured that it grew into the incredible gardens we know today.
Progress in the early days was tough, and much of the work involved the removal of alien species and weeds and restoring the vegetation, however it was during this time that the principle features of the gardens were established, including the main lawn, cycad amphitheatre, rock and stone work, as well as the main pond and arboretum.
Harold Pearson died in 1916 and was subsequently buried in the gardens, and he is largely credited for the on-going success of the world-famous Kirstenbosch. This year Kirstenbosch officially celebrates its 101st birthday, and with entry free on the day, it’s a great opportunity to walk in the footsteps of some of the country’s most visionary botanists and horticulturalists.