In the heart of the Lowveld on the eastern border of South Africa, nestled between the Crocodile and the Nels Rivers, is the Lowveld Botanical Garden. Probably one of South Africa’s most admired and beautifull gardens, the garden was opened in 1971 and the luscious grounds are about 165 hectares big, where approximately 25 hectares of the total area are landscaped with an African plant collection that is equal to none.
The garden is divided up into different sections portraying the wide range of African biomes, from wetlands to savannas, forests and bushveld. The garden has a taste of everything that is African flora.
When arriving at the big thatch gates you will soon notice that this garden has something special to offer, something unique not only for the eye but also for the mind, as this garden is all about infusing the guest with knowledge about Africa’s biodiversity. You start your journey through the gardens by being lifted up into the forest canopy on a floating boardwalk, where you are being treated with a close-up view of the weird epiphytic plants grabbing hold onto the tallest tree branches, epiphytes like Asplenuim, Platyceruim alcicorne, and a range of orchids.
The forests are watered in dry months with one of the worlds biggest overhead sprinkler systems, towering over the canopies of the forests, and the huge water cannons spray water all over the African rain forest, drenching the tourists! (And yes, you are given a raincoat or umbrella!) The excess water is then drained back to the river, to be used again.
There is something about an African garden that just gives you a different feel to any other style of gardening; it’s rough in so many ways – unrefined – nothing in Africa is manicured, but it’s still stylish in a wild way.
When you exit the African rain forest, you enter one of my favourite areas, and that is the wetlands, where there is a forest of one of South Africa’s most extraordinary plants, Rhaphia australis (‘australis’ meaning ‘south’ and not ‘Australia’)
This gigantic palm is the plant with the biggest leaf on earth, with a record rachis up to 25m in length. Other interesting facts about these giants are that they are monocarpic, meaning the palm dies after it pushes out its flowers and sets seed. That happens between 20 and 40 years of age and it also has separate male and female flowers on the same plant.
The palm has commercial use also, and raffia rope is made from this palm and a few other Raphia species occuring on the more central African coastline. The beautiful nuts of the palm are distributed in nature mostly by the palm nut vulture nesting in them, a treat for any bird lover.
This botanical garden is also well known for having one of the biggest African tree collections on earth, and also one of the biggest world collections of cycads, with just about every living species of cycad around the world on public display in the garden.
When the rainy season starts in eastern Africa, the two rivers that surround the gardens start to fill up and display the most amazing water feature you will ever see in a garden. It is simply called ‘The Cascades’ and it is a raging torrent of water, that when you stand next to it, the wind generated from the falling water will literally blow you of your feet, and the mist from the waterfall is so intense that you will be absolutely soaking wet, yet again.
Another area in the garden that I love visiting is the succulent area, where you can find all the bushveld succulents growing together in a natural setting that looks like it has been there for centuries, including plants like all the sanseverias, aloes, euphorbias, pachypoduims and boababs.
It’s not all about the plants. There are lots of wildlife also to be seen in the garden, as the garden is home to many critters, such as small antilope, porcupine, meercat, civet cats, mongoose, leguans, baboons, bush babies, vervet monkeys and the big grumpy guys, the hippos!
This to me is the best garden to go to if you love variety in plants, and want to experience a raw African garden. The inspirational ideas for your own garden will be overwhelming!
[Click through the slideshow to see more images of the stunning Lowveld Botanical Garden]
[Leon has added a photo of the Cascades in the rainy season]