The Company’s Gardens

By Ed Croft, Icklesham, East Sussex, U.K.
Chamaerops No.49 - published online 04-11-2004

Phoenix canariensis.
Photo: Ed Croft

Few of today’s exotic gardens can be said to have their origins dating back to the mid-sixteen hundreds. This is a story about such a garden whose history is linked inextricably to the beginning of a new dawn for a big country — South Africa. In the city bowl of Cape Town, surrounded by the Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and the Lion’s Head on three sides and the sea on the fourth, is a special garden, which dates back to the time when the first settlers from Europe arrived in Table Bay.

Cape Town at a glance

Climate:
Mediterranean
Average Annual Temperature 17C
Average Temperature January 21.2C
Average Temperature July 12.6C
Absolute Minimum Temperature —2C
Average Annual Minimum Temperature 12C
Average Annual Rainfall 506 mm

Location:
South Africa 34S, 1830’E

Most Popular palms:
Phoenix canariensis, Butia capitata, Phoenix reclinata, Washingtonia filifera.

Highlights:
Kirstenbosch, Table Mountain, township tours, craft markets, Robben Island.

In April 1652, Jan van Riebeeck landed at what was to become Cape Town to set up a replenishment station for the Dutch East India Company whose ships would pass the Cape on the long sea route from Europe to the East Indies. The Company’s Gardens were quickly established in order to provide fresh fruit and vegetables together with water from Table Mountain for passing sailors. The original gardens covered 45 acres and were fundamental to the settlement of Cape Town for years to come.

Today the gardens have been reduced in size by the encroaching city and now cover about 8 acres. The gardens these days are overshadowed by the famous Kirstenbosch Garden with its cycad amphitheatre, which is just a few kilometres away to the east on the other side of Devil’s Peak. However, there are a number of treats here for the palm enthusiast and work is continuing to keep gardeners and the general public visiting.

Cape Town’s climate is Mediterranean in nature with a long dry summer with much cooler, wet and often-overcast winters. Unusually, it has a sudden, gusting wind that can take one by surprise; but, in broad terms, the weather is similar to that of Southern Europe. The Company’s Gardens now form a rectangle running northeast/southwest from the city centre to the entrance of the famous Mount Nelson Hotel, which has an amazing avenue of mature Phoenix canariensis running over 150m from the main road to the hotel’s entrance. The current garden structure was set out by Sir Herbert Baker over a hundred years ago and many of the existing plantings stem from that time.

Common in Cape Town and the Company’s Garden are many mature examples of Phoenix reclinata that have formed clumps and pushed other plants aside. This palm above all others adds a touch of the tropics with its leaning slim trunks and arching pinnate fronds. Much of the gardens has formal pathways and beds for roses, agapanthus, cannas and proteas, but there are also extensive plantings of palms such as several mature examples of Butia capitata and a palm labeled Butia bonnetii of which I have not heard [very likely a form of B. capitata. Trees in cultivation under the name Butia bonnetii, an invalid name, usually belong to B. capitata. Ed.]. These palms had clearly been planted many years before and had reached a height of 10 metres; their pale blue/green leaves shimmering in the sun and light breeze. The Butia bonnetii had a tall straight trunk covered in old leaf bases and a crown of pale blue fronds and was generally of similar appearance to the other Butia species.

At the city entrance to the gardens is a superb example of Chamaerops humilis reaching 8m with several tall trunks followed by a second tier of growth reaching up to 5m. This is without doubt the largest specimen of this palm I have seen and, given its moderate rate of growth, must be a very old specimen indeed. On the western side are heavy plantings of Aloe, which include A. vera, A. ramosissima and A. plicantha, together with an impressive example of Agave ferox with its lethal spines. In one particular area given over to palms only, Phoenix reclinata competes with a number of species of palms including Washingtonia filifera and W. robusta, Butia capitata, Trachycarpus fortunei, Sabal palmetto, S. minor and Livistona australis.

These days, buildings tower around the gardens and traffic can clearly be heard running either side of the area. Government Avenue runs through the centre of the gardens but this is pedestrianised nowadays and leads to the House of Parliament. Other important buildings border the gardens including the President’s Office (Tuynhuis), the Cultural History museum and house of Assembly. The days when vegetables were grown in the Company’s Gardens are long since past but the gardens have taken on a new role of providing an area of peace and relative tranquillity in a busy city and the opportunity for the traveller to see palms from different areas of the world growing together in one spot.

 

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