100 Blooming years for Kirstenbosch and the Chelsea Flower Show

18 April 2013

Chelsea Team 2013 with model of planned exhibitJust 100 years ago Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden was a run-down derelict farm – now, “100 blooming years” later, it is arguably the most beautiful garden in Africa and a destination high on any tourist’s list. 

2013 is a milestone year as the Garden celebrates its Centenary and the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI) Kirstenbosch – South Africa exhibit at the upcoming Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show from May 21 to 25 in London will reflect many of the aspects that have made the Garden a “must see” and an icon for botanical enthusiasts internationally.

That the Chelsea Flower Show (CFS) is also celebrating its Centenary is serendipitous and one that will add additional reasons for visitors to enjoy a show that has become the “Olympics” of Flower Shows.

For 38 years South Africa has been exhibiting at this prestigious event and this is the 20th year that designers David Davidson and Raymond Hudson have been presenting innovative, award winning exhibits. Hopes are high that yet another gold medal will be added to the 32 already won over the years. 

A visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is high on the list of priorities for both tourists and locals alike. The exhibit will invite visitors to “Come into the garden” and will offer a glimpse of some of the more unusual aspects of this South African treasure.

Anyone who has experienced Kirstenbosch would find it hard to believe that just 100 years ago the beautiful walkways that we meander along, the exceptional displays and the natural flow of this Garden, was a neglected, overgrown farm with a ruined homestead, hordes of pigs, thickets of weeds and extensive plantations of alien plants.

Chelsea exhibit 2013 modelThe triumph that is Kirstenbosch is due to the vision of its founders and curators. Visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show will enjoy a snapshot of South Africa’s unique botanical heritage - an invitation to explore a fascinating World Heritage site. Endeavoring to create a stunning, sensory walk where visitors can experience the beauty and tranquility of being enveloped in the heart of the Garden – the display is an enclosed reconstruction of the Central Garden and Dell – the oldest and most beautiful parts of the Garden. 

The circular, walk-through exhibit features the Dell and Cycad Amphitheatre on one side, and the Protea Garden and mountain skyline on the other. The overhead sky canopy enhances the sense of quietude that enfolds the Garden.

The development of Kirstenbosch began in 1913 in the natural amphitheatre embracing the Dell, in the heart of the Garden. The paths and steps leading up from the Dell were paved and cobbled in local stone by Kirstenbosch stone masons. By 1916 all but two of the species of cycads found in South Africa (at that time) had been planted and this Living Collection – the first to be established at Kirstenbosch – that today contains 37 of the ±40 southern African cycad species and remains a world-class, living gene-bank of these ancient and remarkable plants.

 The Dell was also one of the earliest developments in Kirstenbosch. Colonel Bird’s Bath was built in approximately 1811 by Colonel Christopher Bird, Deputy Colonial Secretary. He built this bird-shaped pool (a play on his name) to collect and purify the spring water, before being piped to the house. It is built of Batavian bricks and fed by four crystal-clear, ice-cold perennial springs. Then, as now, this is the discreet focal point of the Garden, from which all else radiates.

At every Chelsea Flower Show visitors flock to see the unusual and exotic plants that have made our exhibit a winner for so many years. One of the highlights of the exhibit will be the “Centenarians” - our oldest and most distinguished residents. These plants have been growing at Kirstenbosch for I00 years or more, or were introduced during the first five years, 1913-1917, and are still here today. Not all of the specimens are 100 years old. Some are cuttings, offsets or seedlings of the original plants and have been propagated and grown at Kirstenbosch over the past I00 years. The ever popular Protea family will provide a colourful and always fascinating display against the iconic Table Mountain backdrop.

Plants are sourced from all over the country making this a combined effort from both farmers and landscapers who take pride in participating at this prestigious event.  Community projects are also represented to ensure that local programmes benefit from their inclusion.

Tourism is always a major focus of our exhibit at this prestigious show and many visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show have been inspired to visit South Africa thus providing much needed jobs. With this exhibit the traveler will be enthralled by the history that has made this Garden world-renowned.

Chelsea 2013 Team and modelAs with all major projects sponsorship is of paramount importance and for the third year the South African Gold Coin Exchange is a sponsor of the exhibit which has allowed the team to explore and develop what is hoped will be yet another award winning exhibit.

Winning a 33rd gold medal is the goal and is the synergy that Chairman of the SA Gold Coin Exchange and the Scoin shops, Alan Demby, enjoys.

“As a sponsor for the last three years we have seen the team win RHS gold medals annually.   The Mandela’s Gold Strelitzia at Kirstenbosch has been the inspiration for a limited edition Gold Mandela medallion. This features the portrait of Mandela on the obverse and the Strelitzia on the reverse. Our commitment and sponsorship to the Kirstenbosch attempt to win even more gold medals is reinforced with this medallion and in this, the Centenary year, we see even more synergies with our coin ranges.” he said. 

 Dr Tanya Abrahamse, CEO of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) will be there to cheer the team on. “To celebrate the Centenary of Kirstenbosch and to exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show Centenary is a wonderful opportunity to show the value that we place on our botanical heritage. Biodiversity is our natural capital – it is the extraordinary variety of life, such as plants, animals and insects that are the foundation of ecosystems that provide people with sustainable benefits. From ecosystems we derive essential goods and services, such as food, water grazing, pollination, fish and medicines. Our ecological infrastructure is an extremely valuable national asset, and we embrace the opportunity Chelsea affords us to highlight this”.

 Says David Davidson, “Our experience at Chelsea over the years has been exhilarating, and being part of two Centenaries is an added bonus. This exhibit shows the world the importance we put on our natural heritage and history and Kirstenbosch’s ‘coming-of-age’ gives the traveller yet another reason to visit South Africa and come into OUR Garden.”

 The good news for South Africans and visitors to our country is that the exhibit will be recreated at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town from 31 August until 24 September. Bringing the exhibit to this destination was an inspired move and the V&A Waterfront are proud that they have enabled this Centenary year exhibit to be enjoyed by visitors and residents alike.

As usual, the exhibit will also be displayed at Garden World in Johannesburg as part of their annual Spring Festival, which opens on 25 July. This show runs through August.

The organizers of the East Coast Radio House and Garden Show in Durban are also very much hoping to feature the Chelsea exhibit at their show from the 29 June to 8 July, subject to funding being available.  

For the dedicated team who work hard to put the exhibit together this Centenary year has special significance. The team are all from different parts of the Kirstenbosch “family”. For Communications Officer Andrew Jacobs this is a dream come true. His father worked on the estate and Andrew and his brothers have been working at the Garden all their lives – true “kirstenboschers”. Edgar van Gusling, who celebrated 45 years of service earlier in the year, is the principal foreman on the Estate and one of his jobs has been to oversee the freighting of the precious cargo for the Chelsea Flower Show – this year he will be there to receive it! Add to that the dedication of team coordinator, Alison Pekeur and senior horticulturist Cherise Viljoen and the quiet strength of project manager Sarah Struys, Kirstenbosch Events Manager, and it is easy to understand the ongoing successes of the exhibit. Enthusiastic volunteers from South Africa make their way to London to assist making the exhibit a truly passionate South African project.

More about the  Design team and the exhibit

The designers

David Davidson and Raymond Hudson

David Davidson and Raymond Hudson have been responsible for designing and creating the Kirstenbosch-South Africa exhibit for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for 19 consecutive years, together with a small core team and an enthusiastic crew of volunteers. During this time the exhibit has garnered 14 RHS Gold Medals (bringing the total since 1976 to 31), as well as the Anthony Huxley Trophy (1995) and the Lawrence Medal for the best floral exhibit shown to the RHS in 2006. The exhibit was also the first winner of the RHS President’s Most Creative Award, which was introduced at Chelsea in 2008. The Kirstenbosch Centenary exhibit this year will be the 20th collaboration for the current designers. 

For 17 years prior to 1994, Pam Simcock had done Kirstenbosch and the South African flora proud with her winning designs at Chelsea.

Plants and art have always been David’s greatest passion, although he began his professional career in psychology and clinical social work. His early years were spent growing up in the African bush, which gave him an abiding love of nature. A diploma course in public relations was what finally enabled him to apply for a position at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, where for 17 years he headed the Graphic Services Unit – a role that included exhibition and show design.

His main hobby is stage set design and scenic art – a talent that proves very useful in the creation of an exhibition scale model of the Chelsea exhibit for each year’s media launch, and of course also in mastering some of the logistical challenges and special effects required for the exhibits themselves.

David’s current full-time occupation is as a graphic designer in his own consulting business (www.davidsdesign.co.za). He has also designed floral exhibits in other parts of the world including Germany, Thailand, Singapore and Japan. Chief among his favourite activities, however, is the annual pilgrimage to participate in what endures as the most exhilarating and inspiring of all shows - the RHS Chelsea Flower Show!


Raymond Hudson obtained a Diploma in Horticulture and gained his comprehensive practical training and work experience with the Durban Botanic Garden (1972 - 1979). He subsequently obtained a Diploma in Parks Administration at the John Brooks School of Landscape Design (1984).

Ray’s career in landscaping has included the design and estate management of San Lameer, numerous private gardens and projects for Keith Kirsten Horticulture International including the spectacular Delaire Winery and Boutique Hotel, Cavalli Stud and Wine Farm, Mpekweni Sun Hotel, gardens for the President of Zaire, Bloemfontein State Opera House, Beacon Isle Hotel and Sabie River Bungalows whilst his speciality is small garden design.

Commercial experience includes the launch and retail management of Keith Kirsten’s three Garden Centres in Johannesburg and he has also contributed to Gardening columns for SA Garden & Home and lectures for their School of Landscape Design. On the horticultural show front, Ray designed and executed a South African garden at the Stuttgart IGA Horticultural Exposition 1993 (Gold Medal) and numerous corporate Mulbry Bear Childrens’ Gardens.

Apart from 19 Chelsea flower shows, Ray and David have teamed up on various other occasions including the South African Show Garden for the Royal Flora Expo, Ratchaphruek held in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2007 and the African fantasy garden for the Singapore Garden Festival in 2010.

The exhibit

The Cycad Amphitheatre

This Living Collection was the first to be established at Kirstenbosch and today contains 37 of the ±40 southern African cycad species including Encephalartos woodii (Wood’s cycad), Encephalartos latifrons (Albany cycad), and Encephalartos transvenosus (Modjadji cycad).

Cycads are mostly rare or endangered in their natural habitats and are constantly under threat. Kirstenbosch has an active propagation programme to increase the number of plants available to gardeners and collectors and thus take the pressure off the few remaining wild populations.

The Protea Garden was begun in 1916, and today comprises the Restio, Protea, Fynbos, Buchu and Erica sections. The Fynbos Walk traverses the highest points of the Garden and offers spectacular views of the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and panoramic views across the suburbs of Cape Town to the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

The gardens display the unique vegetation of the Cape Floral Kingdom known as fynbos (pronounced f-ain-boss), including ericas, restios and the remarkably diverse Protea Family: Protea (proteas or sugarbushes), Leucospermum (pincushions), Leucadendron (leucadendrons or conebushes), Mimetes (mimetes or pagodas) and Serruria. The Garden attracts a rich variety of bird pollinators and is at its best in the winter and spring months (May - October) when the proteas, leucadendrons and serrurias are in bloom. The pincushions provide a colourful display in spring and early summer (August to November).

The Mathews’ Rockery was another of the earliest developments in the Garden. It is named in honour of the first curator of Kirstenbosch, Joseph William Mathews (1913 to 1936), who was responsible for the elaborate and imaginative construction work.

Mathews was born in Cheshire in the United Kingdom and trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He moved to Cape Town and for 20 years was a nurseryman and florist, and is credited with being the founder of floriculture in South Africa.

The Rockery is constructed of local sandstone and was built in the 1920s, before the advent of front-end loaders and other earth-moving equipment. It is an intricate maze of small pathways amongst which xerophytic plants from the arid regions of South Africa are planted. You will see many kinds of Aloe - at their best in winter (May-July) when they are in flower, Euphorbia - including two very big, old Euphorbia ingens (tree euphorbias) planted in 1922, and Crassula.

Kirstenbosch Centenarians are our oldest and most distinguished residents - plants that have been growing at Kirstenbosch for I00 years or more, or were introduced during the first five years, 1913-1917, and are still here today. Not all of the specimens are 100 years old. Some are cuttings, offsets or seedlings of the original plants and have been propagated and grown at Kirstenbosch over the past I 00 years.

Kirstenbosch horticulturists collect the plants on field trips, but back in 1913, they also relied on members of the public to send them. Plants came from all over South Africa, supported by free rail transport and postage. Others were already here, growing wild or planted by previous owners.

When a plant is introduced to Kirstenbosch, it is entered into a register and given a unique accession number. The name of the collector and where the plant comes from is recorded, as well as when and where the plants were planted. This information is stored in our database.

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Submitted by Maggie Howard and Stephen at 29/05/2013 - 17:54
Delighted to meet Cherise and her mum at Bodnant Gardens! We were visiting to celebrate Stephen's birthday and you made our day:-) Congratulations to you all! Enjoy the rest of your trip to the UK
Submitted by Anonymous at 22/05/2013 - 7:43
Submitted by Website Manager at 02/05/2013 - 10:54
Hello, Please contact David Davidson directly via davidsdesigns. See his website link above. He does not work for SANBI.
Submitted by Gill Sutton, The St James Retirement Hotel at 30/04/2013 - 15:50
Could Prof Davidson please come and talk to our residents in September/October 2013?
Submitted by Gill Sutton, The St James Retirement Hotel at 19/04/2013 - 15:57
Could Prof. Davidson kindly contact me asap to arrange a talk for our residents? Thank you.

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