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Touring the trees of The Company's Garden


The stars of the Company’s Garden are the trees, as SHARON SOROUR-MORRIS discovers on a walking tour of the garden.

The Company’s Garden, the green lung of downtown Cape Town, is a national treasure. Not only was it declared a National Monument in 1962 but today this 3.2ha space is a Provincial Heritage Site. It offers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city centre; as The Heritage Portal puts it, it is “a place of peace and leisure”. Downtown residents know this all too well. The latest dipstick residential survey done by the CCID revealed it to be a favoured inner-city space.

Its mainly due to the charm bestowed by the trees, and one lovely morning in September, I find myself studying them intently, on a guided walking tour of South Africa’s oldest garden, curated by Kate Crane Briggs* of Culture Connect, and led by well-known landscape artist Clare Burgess, with esteemed arborist Riaan van Zyl.

While the birth of the garden can be traced back to 1644, the first crops of the garden we know today were planted in 1652 by Jan van Riebeeck’s master gardener, Hendrik Boom. He laid out a fruit and vegetable garden, and a herb and medicinal garden. Once these were established, he started planting oak and pine trees and roses, irrigated from freshwater springs.

Today, some of these trees are still standing, linking the city and the garden to its heritage, and as Michael Morris wrote in an article in Weekend Argus, serving as “a lasting record of a complex, often difficult, always dynamic history of southern Africa’s place in the world, and Cape Town’s place in Africa”.


To be in the company of Clare and Riaan, knowledgeable tree lovers who are modern-day tree whisperers in touch with the magic trees impart to our world, is inspiring. Clare speaks of “magnificent specimans” when describing the trees, and when she leads us to the imposing Outeniqua yellow wood (Podocarpus falcatus), which horticulturists believe predates the garden and is as much as 380 years old, we get her drift. “When I take students on a tree tour, we do what I call an obligatory tree hug,” she says. “We stand around the trunk and hug the tree and see how many arms can embrace it. This giant is probably a six-person tree.” Adds Riaan: “If you want to discover happiness, you have to reconnect to nature, and with trees specifically. Try to tune in with your senses when you’re standing under a tree, make that connection.”

Kate Crane Briggs at the VOC Vegetable Garden entrance

We pass the VOC Vegetable Garden, with its pleasing symmetry. Modelled on a more than three-century-old layout, its main objective was to serve as an educational garden. Hedges, fences and trellises demarcate its various levels but sadly its scope has been severely diminished since the 2018 drought when the Company’s Garden water supply was cut off.

We move on to the delightful Wijnappel, the first apple cultivar successfully cultivated here and recently reintroduced into the garden, and then arrive at what was, for many years, the rose garden. The first roses reportedly bloomed in this space in 1659, but they have now made way for indigenous fynbos to complement the education garden, Clare says.

When we reach the more formal part of the garden, the central axis that links Queen Victoria St to the Iziko National Gallery, with ponds created in the 1930s, she points out the three Chinese native Ginkgo biloba trees. “The Ginkgo biloba trees were planted as they grow well in a highly polluted area,” she says, as Egyptian geese honk noisily in the background. “They are actually a species of duck!” she laughs. Much of the garden’s character is set by Government Avenue, a National Monument, and its oak trees that stand sentry. The avenue was originally lined with citrus trees that did not fare well. Oaks were then planted, including Turkish and English oaks, to eventually provide vessels in which to mature wine. “It didn’t work out as the oaks grew too fast and the wood was porous.”


On and on we go: there’s the 200-year-old black mulberry, Morus nigra, thought to be one of the original mulberry trees planted while Van Riebeeck was governor, and at the heart of an ill-thought out plan devised in the 1700s by Willem Adriaan van der Stel to create a silk industry in the Cape. We pass notable collections of palms and ferns on our way to the mammoth rubber tree (Ficus elastica), part of the Banyan family native to northeast India and southern Indonesia. And stop at the fenced and braced saffron pear tree (Pyrus communis), which is more than 360 years old and was brought out from Europe with the first Dutch expedition. Edible fruit still appear every autumn.

Then the tour ends, and it’s time to leave. But what a privilege to spend time here in what Morris describes as “this breathing vestige of the early days of global exchange and the interplay of ideas, science, specimens and people”.

*Kate Crane Briggs of Culture Connect crafts and curates private and public tours, many of them exploring the Central City. Upcoming in November is a tour of the art collection of the Assembly chambers at Parliament. Contact Kate on

IMAGES: Sharon Sorour-Morris