Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Wine Country and other Botanical Adventures

Wine Country and other Botanical Adventures

This weekend I spend in Winelands, in and around Stellenbosch as guest of fabulous Wim Tijmens, Emeritus Praefectus Horti, Hortus Botanicus and Landscape Architect, and old friend of even more fabulous Betty Scholz, Director Emeritus of Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. (I put their name in italics because I believe they are truly their very own species, and quite possibly in danger of extinction. Betty is of course endemic to this Cape region and now a beloved transplant to Brooklyn.)

After getting an hour late to Wim’s house because I did loose his phone number again and having only fragments of his address with me, I finally met this charming, lean, energetic and charismatic Dutch man. He immediately took me in his car to our first destination, Rustenberg, an immense and sprawled out estate, that grows famed wines and raises award winning jersey cows.

I had no idea this place is sooo beautiful! Driving through the gate Wim told me about his 13 years of living on the estate, caring for the wild part and the woodlands, and also having his hands in the gardens. As we entered the immaculate renovated and kept buildings where the wine tastings are held, people greeted him, and the current owner Simon Barlow came to meet us briefly. Wim is fond of telling everybody that he knew him as a puppy… We got to try some of their top wines, and they were delicious. Then we walked through the newly developed garden by Rozanne Barlow that stretches gracefully towards the river on the right, with grand views towards the mountains and False Bay. There was snow on top of these rocky mountains in the not so far distance, something that very rarely happens, and which made for some very special pictures, but also was the source for the very low temperatures! But the skies stayed without a single cloud, and the air was so clean and crisp, it seems completely devoid of pollution. Yes, the quality of the light here is very different, sharp and very bright, but also three-dimensional.

There was a gigantic labyrinth, and a reflecting pool with huge koi in all colors. They did have a rather sturdy black net covering the entire square, which is I would think a very good idea as those African Fish Eagles I saw before are perfectly capable of carrying away quite sizable pray!

We just strolled around, and other then Kirstenbosch where there is almost only Southern African plants, here you saw all the familiar cultivated Europeans, Americans, and Asians. Roses, hellebores, salvias, lavenders, ginkgo and boxwood, e.t.c, but the real freaky thing is that right between these grows a palm tree and snowdrops are in bloom next to the wild dagga, Leonotis leonurus and scabiosa, mid summer annuals in our parts of the world. This is wrong – and very irritating!

From there we drove on over the small Helshoogte Pass towards Franschhoek with more enchanting panoramic views of these rolling valleys, and snow covered peeks.

We stopped briefly at George’s, who is the horticulturist in charge of the small botanical garden belonging to Stellenbosch University, which is Wim’s work. Wim invited him to join us at Boschendal, another picture perfect wine estate, where we had a lovely lunch with some more wine, sitting outside in the courtyard under the old oak trees. The sun was out, but the air had very much bite to it, and looking at the snow in the distance did not really help that much! George had accompanied Wim on one of his guided botanical trips to China, and knew Betty from various occasions; a nice man with the very mellow disposition of a longtime gardener.

Wim and George

The story with the oaks here is very interesting! The colonists, after quickly chopping down most of the local Yellowwood (Pododcarpus latifolius) and Stinkwood trees (Ocotea bullata), and even burning Protea bushes for firewood, found themselves in desperate need of more trees. They appreciated these indigenous trees for their very durable and fine-grained wood, prized for furniture making and used extensively for floor and ceiling boards, but found them to be growing very slowly. So they thought of the most desirable tree they knew from back home, and shipped a large number of oak seedlings in little wooden caskets across the oceans. These oaks grew fantastically well and fast, but right there was also the problem. With the winters here being so mild, the oaks have a very short dormant period, barely loosing their leaves before pushing out new ones, which results in fast growth and very weak and lousy wood not suitable for building nor furniture making. And the infamously strong cape storms do easy damage to these, often decapitating and severely injuring the trunks, resulting in hallow and rotting specimen. On top of all this the oaks produced a large amount of seeds that readily germinated in this mild climate, resulting in a wide distribution of a basically useless tree. Kirstenbosch used to have a lot, planted by the previous farmers and even the first director, and the sale of acorns as pig food was a quite important source of income for the garden at the time. There are still quite a few left, and some are rather healthy and large specimen, but they are not being replaced once the wind and age take them out. So that’s the story of oaks in South Africa. 

After lunch we drove around Stellenbosch a little, and I realized the size of the University this otherwise small place has. The campus is very beautiful, and there are more than 23,000 students enrolled at the moment!  This university traditionally was very Afrikaans (meaning white only), but this is changing slowly with a colored (permissible language here) dean, and an increasing mixed student body. Of course being allowed to study does not mean at all being able to do so, many young and gifted people from the townships obviously have too much pressure to make money and contribute to the household, instead of accumulating student loan depths. And we did not see very many students as they have their winter vacation until the end of the month.

Back at the house it was time for a nap, and I browsed in the many interesting plant books that were lying around (I came across a fascinating book on SA parasitic plants). A small dinner, some wine and the burning wood in the open fireplace helped to take off the edge of the chilly night, and the stories about people and places that Wim knows from his work and travels kept me awake past midnight. Illustrious is a word that comes to mind!

Next day Sunday Wim took me to Vergelegen (meaning ‘out of the way’). This is yet another mind-blowing estate near Somerset West, and is considered one of the most beautiful estates in the world! Build in 1701 by many slaves from all over the territory of the Dutch West India Company, it has orchards and vineyards filling a whole valley.

The main axis allows your view to go all the way from the mountains, through the orchards, cutting the octagonal main corral (now the main garden) in half, right through the center of the symmetrical house and past the old camphor trees, into the Camellia collection and the woods with the river flowing by…Grand!

The 300 years old camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) in front of the main homestead are declared National Monuments, and they are truly monumental! These are not indigenous, but originally from Asia, where they are cultivated for camphor and timber production.

Walking around further we admired a moderately old but very hallow oak, and an absolute magical Podocarpus. This tree’s age is also estimated around 300 years, and its multiple stems, and branches wind and twist and bend along the ground. And further out, a perfect circle of seedlings surrounds the old tree, forming the most magical fairy ring you can find.

The buildings in comparison are rather small and modest in dimension, and simple in layout and design but exquisite and filled with many valuable antiques the different owners acquired throughout the centuries.

This is the old farm/slave bell under the camphor trees - a not so distant reality.

Now the estate belongs to a large mining company, the Anglo American plc group, which has some Oppenheimer sitting on his main board of directors, who took special interest in this place. On the guest list one will find (besides of the Oppenheimers) the Queen, Nelson Mandela, the Clintons, and me.

Again Wim knew almost everybody, and introduced me to the chief horticulturist who happened to lunch with the camellia hybridizer who had donated his collection a couple of years earlier to Vergelegen. With them was an American woman microbiologist who I had an interesting exchange about chromosome counting.

We had a lovely and elegant lunch on the terrace (more wine of course), talking more travels and plants, and when I took off to head back towards Cape Town I felt positively elevated and inspired.


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