South Africa is a botanical paradise, and one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. From the dry west coast and semi-arid interior across the high and low veld grasslands to the spine of the Drakensburg Mountains and then the rapid descent to the humid east coast, South Africa offers a wide range of climates, vegetation types and gardens.
Garden and wildflowers to see and visit in South Africa include the spring wildflowers of Namaqualand, the scenic Western Cape and historic gardens and wineries of Cape Town, the 'Garden Route' of fynbos vegetation and garden-filled towns along the southern coast, and the subtropical gardens of Durban and KwaZulu-Natal.
Garden Travel Guide to South Africa
Getting there and getting around
There are 70 international airlines flying into Johannesburg and increasingly into Cape Town as well, so choice is not a problem but it is a long flight, with 11 hours flying time from London, 14 hours from Sydney and 16 hours from New York.
From the international gateways there are both domestic air travel and a fairly well developed interurban rail system. The basic level of rail is neither fast not opulent but South Africa also boasts some of the most luxurious train journeys available anywhere. Rail will generally be dearer than coach travel. Bus companies come with a variety reputations so it is worth seeking further recommendations for the right company once you have chosen your itinerary (you can even travel with the backpackers who are also well served by interurban buses that also carry surfboards and bikes).
Because South African roads are generally well maintained, and well signposted, self-drive holidays in hire cars are also becoming more popular (especially for UK, Australian and New Zealand tourists who all drive on the same side).
South Africa’s topography and natural vegetation
Many of the plants used in gardens around the world come from South Africa, including Agapanthus, Clivea, Protea, Aloe, Crassula, Kalanchoe, bird of paradise (Strelitzia), pompom tree (Dias), plumbago, Cape chestnut, coral tree (Erythrina), Natal plum (Carissa), Arctotis daisy, crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia), black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia) and red hot pokers (Kniphofia).
South Africa’s landscape is dominated by a high Central Plateau surrounded by coastal lowlands. This plateau is rimmed by the Great Escarpment. Between the Great escarpment and the coast is a narrow coastal plain which is only 60 km to 250 km wide.
The central plateau (apart from the Lesotho Highlands) is largely flat and is highest in the east, sloping gently downwards to the west where it is about 1000m above sea level in Namaqualand.
The Lesotho Highlands are from when Africa was still part of Gondwana. Most of the original lava deposits from the original Gondwana times have been eroded but they remain in the east, particularly in Lesotho, where they leave the highest mountains which are then eroded by tributaries of the Orange River. This gives this high region is very rugged, mountainous appearance.
At the eastern edge of the plateau the land drops sharply to the coastal plain which creates a very high, steep escarpment known as the Drakensberg Mountains. This landform means that the many coastal rivers in the east are only short, and the few larger rivers draining the plateau generally run west to the Atlantic.
South Africa is a very biodiverse region with over 20,000 species, many of them endemic. Particular vegetation communities of interest to gardeners are the fynbos biome in the area around Cape Town, which includes sclerophyll plants adapted to dry conditions and poor soils, such as proteas and ericas.
North of Cape Town in Namaqualand and into neighbouring Namibia is where you’ll find the very colourful ephemeral spring-flowering daisies and bulbs that bloom in this arid land after winter rain, including Dimorphotheca, Osteospermum, Gazania and Felicia.
Along the east coast there are still a few areas of tall native forest featuring plants like the podocarp conifer Outeniqua yellowwood, although most forests have been cleared for farming or plantation timber growing.
South Africa’s ‘Garden Route’ is not actual gardens but a very scenic drive through beautiful and unique vegetation along the coastal route from Mossel Bay through George to Storms River. It includes 10 nature reserves featuring fynbos, forest and wetland vegetation.
South Africa’s climate
The range of climates in South Africa are very similar those found in Australia, with the south west coast generally a Mediterranean climate, the east coast cool to warm subtropical and the inland on the Central Plateau dry, with varying level of rainfall depending on altitude and distance from the east coast.
The area around Cape Town on the south-west coast is typical of a Mediterranean climate with 500mm of rain each year, mainly in the winter. Summers are hot and dry with periodic droughts and an average daytime temperature range in summer of 15 to 26ºC and a winter range of 7 to 17ºC. As with most of SA, frost occurs more towards the inland than on the coast.
The south coast is cool subtropical (similar to Sydney) with warm and moist conditions and an average daily temperature range of 15 to 25ºC in summer and 7 to 19ºC in Winter. Rainfall is moderate at 750 – 1000mm per year and can occur at any time. Inland frosts are common in winter.
The east coast from about Port Elizabeth through Durban to Zimbabwe has a warm, humid subtropical climate with summer rainfall. Average summer temperature range is 21 to 28ºC in Durban and in winter ranges from 10 to 20ºC. Durban’s rainfall is about 1,000mm a year and this increases as you go further north. Winter months from July to September are still warm and sunny with little rain. This area is the only area of South Africa which is largely frost free.
Inland from the coast the climate varies from warm semi-arid around Johannesburg to arid further west towards Namibia. Johannesburg has a climate regulated by its high altitude and has a summer daily range of about 14 to 25ºC and a winter daily range of about 4 to 16ºC but extremes have been much wider and winter temperatures can occasionally be much lower. Rainfall peaks from December to March, with frequent storms.
Further west the summer daytime temperatures increase to 40ºC or more, with little humidity, but overnight temperatures drop drastically and frost is a regular occurrence in winter. Rainfall is as low as 250mm in the west, and drought is a regular occurrence. When rain does fall it is monsoonal and occurs mainly during summer in the north and during the winter in the south. To further challenge gardeners, frosts can be severe in the southern regions and occur during late autumn to early spring.
South African garden style
Like most who live in warmer climates, South Africans enjoy an outdoor lifestyle. In wealthier suburbs many back gardens feature outdoor dining, swimming pools and entertaining areas as well as flower gardens and home vegetable gardens. Front gardens are often hidden from the street by high walls due to security concerns.
Planting styles vary considerably depending on the climate, with east coast gardens favouring a more subtropical style while those in elevated districts such as around Johannesburg grow a wide range of perennials and flowering shrubs, including a mix of both native and exotic plants.
In public gardens such as The Company’s Garden in Cape Town you can see what’s called Cape Dutch design which marries together influences from South Africa’s two main groups of European settlers – the British and the Dutch.
When to visit South Africa’s gardens
Most of South Africa has a temperate climate so the decision is often based on what other events are taking place that you will want to include in your visit.
For example, South Africa’s winter months (June, July, August) – which have the least rainfall, except for the Western Cape with its Mediterranean climate – is a peak time for game viewing as a shortage of water means animals gather at watering holes. Foliage is also less, which makes game spotting easier, and during summer months, temperatures in the Northern Cape’s national parks can get unbearably hot.
If you want to experience the world-famous daisies of the Namaqualand Flower Route, then from mid August to early October is the time to visit, driving out from towns like Garies, Kamieskroon and Springbok.
The southern areas are temperate enough to visit anytime, particularly the famous ‘Garden Route’ but it is easier if you plan your Garden Route holiday for March to May to avoid the December to February rush of local and international visitors.
South African regularly open gardens FREE entry
Cape Town and Western Cape
• The Company’s Garden, Queen Victoria St in Cape Town CBD – Origins from 1652, when the Dutch East India Company stopped in Cape Town to victual ships headed for the East Indies. ‘Dutch baroque kitchen-garden’ overlaid with Victorian romantic garden style: heritage buildings, vegetable garden, water features, oak woodland, aviary, herb and rockery garden, rose garden. Self guided walks.
• Arderne Gardens – Main Road, Claremont. 4.5 hectares of gardens, many mature exotic trees from other Southern Hemisphere countries, ponds, Japanese garden.
• Biodiversity Garden – Green Point, Cape Town. Explore local bush food, the medicinal garden, sustainable gardening practices, wetland walk, sculpture and local birdlife.
• Tokai Arboretum – Constantiaberg
• Durbanville Rose Garden – Durbanville Ave. 2 hectares with 6,000 roses of 500 different varieties. Best Oct-May.
• Rust-en-Vrede – Durbanville. Art gallery and gardens.
• Stellenbosch Botanical Gardens – Van Riebeeck Street Stellenbosch. Beautiful 1.8 hectare garden with lotus and koi ponds, Japanese garden, herb garden, arboretum, 3 glasshouses.
• Schoongezicht Gardens – Stellenbosch. Formal gardens surrounding the Cape-Dutch style early 19th century homestead.
span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Durban and KwaZulu-Natal
• Durban Botanical Garden – Sydenham Road Durban. Herb garden, palm walk, fern dell, Garden of the Senses, orchid house, the ‘Living Beehive’.
• Garden Route Botanical Garden – Caledon St, George. Flora of the Cape Floral Kingdom, border Outeniqua Nature Reserve.
South African regularly open gardens PAID entry
Cape Town and Western Cape
• Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden – one of the world’s great botanic gardens. Established in 1913, Kirstenbosch is a 36 hectare garden set under the eastern slopes of the spectacular Table Mountain. The gardens hold a unique collection of indigenous South African flora, especially of the surrounding Cape Floral Kingdom. Large cycad collection, glasshouse.
• Babylonstoren – 1.75 hectares (8 acres) of produce gardens with a formal layout. Daily tours at 10am, bookings essential.
• Old Nectar Gardens – Stellenbosch. 2 hectares of stunning gardens, built over 70 years by Una van der Spuy, surrounding a Cape-Dutch 18th century home.
• Rustenberg Winery Gardens – Stellenbosch. Large private farm garden of ‘garden rooms’ with herbaceous border, old-fashioned roses and historic buildings. Open to the public one weekend each year in early November.
• Groote Schuur Estate – Klipper Road, Rondebosch. Formal home of Cecil Rhodes, wide lawns, rose garden, wide variety of flowering shrubs including plumbago, Rhodes’ favourite. Appointment required.
• Vergelegen Wine Estate – Somerset West. Original gardens date from early 18th century; 17 unique themed gardens with spreading mature trees, a white garden, camellia gardens, rose and herb gardens.
• The Cellars-Hohenort (Constantia Valley) – boutique hotel with 9 acres of garden developed by Liz McGrath over a 20 year period. Large rose garden. Garden access for guests, visitor tours by appointment
• La Motte Wine Estate
• Sheilam Cacti and Succulents Garden – Robertson. One of the world’s biggest collections of cacti and succulents. Guided tours of the extensive garden (min 4 people) by appointment only.
• Stellenberg Gardens, Kenilworth – 16 garden areas including White Garden and Parterre Garden, visits by appointment through Stellenberg Nursery
• Harold Porter National Botanical Garden – Cape Overberg, 10 hectares of fynbos gardens plus 190 hectares of natural vegetation, spectacular in spring. Disa orchids in Dec-Jan.
• Obesa Wholesale Cactus Nursery – Graaf Reniet. 10 hectares, 7,000 plant species. Entry by appointment.
Johannesburg and Pretoria (Gauteng)
• Pretoria Botanical Garden – 50 hectares of gardens of mostly indigenous SA plants, savanna and forest biomes.
• Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden – Roodepoort, Gauteng, ‘Rocky Highveld Grassland’, waterfalls, abundant birdlife.
• Brenthurst Estate – Parktown Johannesburg. Private estate of the Oppenheimer family with 45 acres of meticulously maintained and magnificent gardens surrounding an elegant Cape Dutch house. Gardens are maintained along biodynamic principles.
• Freedom Park – Salvokop, Pretoria. A celebration of South Africa’s heritage, humanity and freedom, includes Garden of Remembrance.
Pretoria’s streets are a sea of purple from late October to November as the tens of thousands of exotic jacaranda street trees come into bloom, plus a hundred rarer white jacarandas in the Groenkloof area.
• Fairview Homestead – produce garden, rose garden, flower garden, parterre. Open by appointment for small charity donation.
• Free State National Botanical Garden – Bloemfontein. Grasslands and woodland gardens.
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, East Coast
• KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden – plants of the eastern grasslands.
• Durban Botanic Gardens – Africa’s oldest surviving botanical garden, founded in 1849. Many mature trees of African, Asian and American origin plus collections of palms, cycads and orchids.
• Makaranga Botanical Gardens – Kloof, Durban. 7.5 hectares of ponds, Shona stone carvings, winding paths, labyrinth, orchids, Japanese garden and green lawns.
• Lowveld National Botanical Garden – Nelspruit, subtropical and rainforest gardens, waterfalls, convergence of the Crocodile and Nels Rivers.
Karoo and Bokkveld Plateau
• Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden, Worcester – 11 hectare garden of desert and semi-arid plants including many succulents, plus 143 hectares of natural vegetation. Spectacular July-Sept flower display of vygies (ice plants).
• Hantam National Botanical Garden – renown for its spring wildflower season, plus Brunsvigia in autumn.
South Africa Garden Festivals
• Open Gardens Constantia – biennial, next in November 2016
• Stihl Open Gardens of Pietermaritzburg and Midlands – KwaZulu-Natal. Weekend openings throughout October-November
• George Open Gardens – Garden Route (south coast), late October
• Hoekwil Open Gardens – Garden Route (south coast), mid November
• Bedford Garden Festival – Eastern Cape, town and farm gardens, next in October 2016
• Cape Horticultural Society’s Flower and Garden Show – Constantia, late September
• Elgin Open Gardens – Western Cape, 2 weekends late October and early November
• Franschhoek Open Gardens Festival – Western Cape, late October
• Garden World Spring Festival – Gauteng, mid-July to end August
• Witness Garden Show, Pietermaritzburg – large garden show with display gardens, plants, garden products, entertainment, competitions and speakers. Late September
• Berry Festival Magoebaskloof – visit working berry farms – early February
• Spring Festival Magoebaskloof and Haenertsburg – flowering blossom trees and azaleas in the Cheerio Gardens and Sequoia Gardens – late September
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