John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

Arderne Gardens. Exotic Suburbia

Itís Saturday afternoon sometime in May 2011 and a cameraman in top hat and tails is pacing anxiously at a pair of palisade steel gates on Claremont Main Road, caught between defending the parking place directly in front of the park and keeping a riot of children on the entrance lawn, when all they really want to do is disappear into the depths of the botanical Disneyland beyond. An alluring tangle of reflecting pools, secret paths and hidden bridges that is arguably one of South Africa's most intriguing national monumentsÖ Arderne Gardens.

His anxiety is well founded. Parking on Main Road Claremont is elusive at the best of times, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon outside Cape Town's premier park for wedding snaps,.Ö it's downright rare.

It's not difficult see why, because for more than a hundred and fifty years the clay paths of this garden have led visitors off the frenetic Main Road, past picnic spots and manicured lawns, to dells of giant tree ferns with ponds of crimson fish and nesting birds. Itís like getting out of your car and walking straight into Eden. And you don't need to know much about plants to understand that this four hectare block of downtown suburbia is no ordinary council park. Aside from the purely visceral experience of wandering through a garden of such physical scale, there is also a kind of earthy spirituality about the place that seems to sit well with the idea of marriage. In a way it's like Mother Nature herself, bringing blessings of growth and succession to your wedding day, along with irrefutable testimony to the virtue of natural process, patience and resilience. I can see how that works for newly-weds.

Actually weddings are nothing new to this place; the first wedding in the gardens was way back in 1853 when a young orphan by the name of Annie (God's truth) married her beau under the cool shade of the juvenile Norfolk Island Pines, just eight years after the gardenís inauguration, one hundred and sixty-six years before today. 

The garden first came to life when Ralph Henry Arderne (1802-1885), a successful timber merchant, identified a good piece of land across the road from where he was living in Claremont. Apart from having a strong spring and perennial stream, the gently sloping six hectare site (part of the original Stellenberg estate), consisted of good soil for cultivation as well as offering some protection from the worst of the powerful summer South East winds. It was perfect for his intentions and when it came up for sale in 1845 he jumped at the opportunity and bought the property from a Mr Sebastiaan Cloete for £740. He renamed it 'the Hill' and promptly put into action his long-held dream of a creating a botanical garden of plants from around the world. 

Using his connections within the timber trade he managed to persuade a number of the ship Captains who regularly anchored in Table Bay to collect seedlings and young plants from the various countries with whom they traded. And whilst in our modern times you'd be considered mad if you asked the captain of a ship to bring you a whip Salix from Babylon or a ripening hip off some Shanghai rose, in the Victorian times this was not the case. Botanical collection and the spirit of discovery had long been part of a ship captain's duties and many were happy to indulge the enthusiastic and wealthy timber trader from the Cape Colony in his passion for gardening. Consequently it wasn't long before Ralph Henry amassed a notable collection of plants from all corners of the globe and set about planting them in his garden: Norfolk Pines and Figs from Australia, giant tree ferns from New Zealand, bamboos and camellias from Japan, camphor trees from the Mediterranean, Himalayan deodars from India, sequoia redwoods from California and a number of species sourced from the very hub of the worlds botanical collections at the time, Kew gardens, which itself was experiencing a renaissance of sorts, under Queen Victoria's patronage, after a long period of indifference by her apathetic predecessor, King George 4th. 

In the forty years until his death Ralph Henry continued to develop the famous garden at the Hill for the great benefit of his family and friends. When he died from a stroke in 1885 his equally passionate son, Henry Matthew Arderne (1834-1914) continued where his father had left off and combined a love of travelling with collecting plant specimens from around the world. He added significantly to the gardenís collection over the years, most notably the rare and beautiful white-flowering bulb, Watsonia borbonica 'Ardernii', which was named after him when a hike into the Cedarberg Mountain lead to its discovery.   

With his passing in 1914 the property was sold and consequently subdivided for development in what was fast becoming a popular neighborhood for the affluent.  It was only the good sense of a Mr A W van den Houten, director of Parks and Gardens for the municipality at the time, which saved the garden from being, swallowed up by strip development along the main road in the 1920ís. Recognizing the importance of the garden as both a botanical asset and a potentially important public space, he persuaded the City to purchase a portion of it for preservation, which they did in July 1928. It was this section of the original garden that officially became known as Arderne Gardens in 1961. 

The garden continued to be well-used by the public throughout the latter half of the 20th century and thanks to this popularity and the attentions of a dedicated curator, Mr A M J Scheltens, the park was able to compete successfully for the resources required to maintain a public garden on such a scale.

However, as all gardeners know, nothing is forever and sadly the turn of the century saw a corresponding down-turn in the fortunes of the park, as ever-tightening city budgets saw the gardens slip into disrepair. The paths needed attention, some of the trees were becoming dangerous and the beds were looking tired and in need of a fond heart.

Fortunately in 2004 members of the Cape Horticultural Society and other interested parties joined forces and formed 'Friends of the Arderne Gardens' (FOTAG) who, along with the City of Cape Town, took on the task of preserving and developing the park for current and future generations. FOTAG have since been active in both general and much-needed tree maintenance, as well as facilitating the important ecological process of succession - the on-going job of planting that will allow future generations to experience such remarkable, mature specimens as we do today, with six nationally protected trees that are officially recognized by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry as Champion Trees. They are so called because their age, biological aspects and heritage status are significant and therefore deemed worthy of protection. These trees are: a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla) which is reportedly the biggest tree in the Western Cape and one of the four largest in South Africa; a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla); a Turkish Oak (Quercus cerris); a Queensland Kauri (Agathis robusta); an Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) and a Corky Oak (Quercus suber). Besides these officially recognized champion trees, there are many other significant heritage trees for the horticulturally-inclined to see. Most are from other southern hemisphere countries, which make it an important public botanical garden, complementary to - but distinct from - Kirstenbosch Gardens, which is focused on local plants.

One doesnít have to wander long through the leafy lanes of Arderne Gardens to feel privileged to be amongst such magnificent trees just a few steps away from suburbia and the perpetual urgency of our times. In our present era of rampant development it is a rarity for even individual trees to survive long enough to achieve the epic proportions that some of these regal behemoths have reachedÖ. but for a whole park to survive to this stately climax is surely divine. 






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Posted: 9/21/2011 (2:25:22 PM)

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