John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

Professor Robert Harold Compton

In 1921 the director of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Professor Robert Harold Compton, endeavoured to create a second botanical collection in the Karoo. This garden, he envisaged, was to operate as a kind of “substation” or “outstation “ of Kirstenbosch, specifically for the purposes of growing, propagating and studying succulents: aloes, cacti and other xerophytes or, as the professor himself so put it, “to be a repository of some of the most remarkable forms of life that the world contains”.  

And boy was he right! These genera of plant life have, over millennia in the desert, morphed into a motley crew of Dr Seuss-like characters that have had to pull every dirty trick in the book to survive in these toughest neighbourhoods of the natural world. Places that we humans tend to give names like Death Valley, Skeleton Coast, the Empty Quarter or even... Hotazel.
 
I am referring, of course, to the Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden in Worcester, Africa’s only truly succulent garden. Here one finds a collection of plants that have adapted to survive desert environments and come in many weird and wonderful shapes and sizes -  spinescent, epicuticular, caudiciform and tomentose (read spiky, waxy, squat and hairy) with poisonous sap and unapologetically few leaves - just for good measure. 

Remarkable forms indeed, these freakish floras have found so many resourceful ways of cheating death in parched landscapes, it’s ingenious.  Granted, they ain’t all pretty.  Yet somehow they’ve managed to creep into the hearts of many a discerning gardener with their stoic pragmatism and oddball beauty. Fact is, there are so many unusual plants here. The kind of things you just don’t find in all the normal places one looks for them. Like the weird but nonetheless charming Namibian grape, Cyphostemma juttae which can store up to 60 litres of water in its bulbous trunk, and consequently looks more like a colossal upside-down potato than any sort of grape. It’s found naturally only in the north-western corner of Namibia in the remote and arid Kaokoland, but seems to have adapted well to the slightly wetter conditions of the Klein Karoo. Then there’s the mesmeric forest of resolute Aloe dichotoma, the famous Kokerboom, standing together on a rocky hill, as if gathered in unified defiance of the endless drought - like a living Stonehenge quietly awaiting the rain.

However, although they are infinitely impressive, it is not only the large architectural specimens that define the garden.  It is often said that Spring is the best time to visit, when the slopes are a blaze of chromatic effervescence, courtesy of the normally demure vygie. It’s true, no other plant does Spring quite like these intoxicating little groundcovers. 

Other seasons are good as well. Our visit coincided with a spectacular display of the autumn-flowering bulbs, Brunsvigia bosmaniae that were rescued en masse from the Knersvlakte some years back and now turn the red-earth into a carpet of electric pink every April. I am told that every year the display becomes more breathtaking.

Aside from the plants, this garden is remarkable in that it’s actually a reincarnation of its original self, having been moved, along with all the major specimens and a fair amount of infrastructure, from a previous site at Whitehill, in Matjesfontein. It was there, on a stone-clad hill of shale and Dwyka conglomerate, that South Africa’s second official National Botanical Garden got its rather inauspicious start, as part of the Matjesfontein railway station garden back in 1925. Former stationmaster, Joseph Archer, was appointed curator and along with award-winning railways horticulturalist, Frank Frith, developed the gardens until 1939 when the Second World War and the diversion of a national road, left it somewhat inaccessible to the visiting public, thereby necessitating the move to Worcester in 1945. Archer’s contribution to horticulture is still honoured today in the plant names Drosanthernum archeri and Tanquana archerii, amongst others.

Today the garden at Worcester encompasses one hundred and forty acres of natural semi-desert on the foothills of the Hex River Mountains and includes ten acres of cultivated garden. A narrow tarred road provides vehicular access to parking at its centre, from where several gently sloped paths link up various parts of the garden, providing easy pedestrian access to the 400 plus plant species that occur naturally in the park - of which over 300 are protected. There is also a maze that has been constructed out of the free flowering Tecomaria capensis (to which children and brightly coloured birds seem to be attracted in equal measure), a Khoisan cooking shelter, a plant sales nursery, several (easy) hiking trails, organised tours, a Braille trail, a shale trail, a nursery.... and of course, a whole lot more weird and wonderful plants to marvel at.

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 Tel: +27 23 347 0785: 
Hours: Mon – Sun: 07h00 to 19h00; 365 days a year;  
Roux Road, Panorama, Worcester;  


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Posted: 10/26/2012 (12:18:04 PM)

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