For a detailed timeline of the development of the Garden see Kirstenbosch through the decades

Ancient Times to the 1700s

Kirstenbosch has sheltered, and provided water and food for many peoples over the millennia. The presence of Stone Age man is indicated by hand-axes and stone implements found in the Dell. By the time the Europeans first sailed around the Cape in the late 1400s, the Khoikhoi people were using this land and had been here for about 2000 years.

Two clans lived on the Cape Peninsula, the Gorachouqua and the Goringhaiqua. They grazed their cattle in Table Valley in early summer, travelled to the Hout Bay area in midsummer and crossed the Cape Flats to the Boland during winter.

In April 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck, acting for the Dutch East India Company, arrived at the Cape to set up a refreshment station for passing ships. The settlement soon spread to our side of TableMountain in search of timber and farmland.

On 27 October 1657 a stretch of forest that included Kirstenbosch was granted to Leendert Cornelissen, a free carpenter and sawyer. At that time, this land was known as Leendertsbos. Cornelissen was responsible for protecting the forest from indiscriminate hacking for firewood in order to provide a steady supply of wood for the settlement.

The settlement lay in the path of traditional Khoikhoi grazing routes and open conflict broke out between the Khoikhoi and the settlers during 1659-60. Kirstenbosch lay on the frontier and Cornelissen and his men were involved in a skirmish with a group of Khoikhoi people in the forest in May 1659.

Jan Van Riebeeck decided that a defensive barrier was required to protect the settlement. In 1659 they started building a wooden fence, with watchtowers, from the mouth of the Salt River through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, using the deeper sections of the Liesbeeck River as part of the barrier.

But the fence was expensive, and slow-going. In 1660 Van Riebeeck ploughed up and planted the remaining section between the river and Kirstenbosch with a hedge of Wild Almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium) and thorny brambles. Sections of Van Riebeeck’s Hedge still survive in Kirstenbosch.

By 1661 Leendert Cornelissen was discharged from his office as a Burgher Councillor for brawling, fighting and swearing, and little is heard of him after 1672 when Leendertsbos reverted to the Company. During the time that the forests were being harvested, the woodcutters made tracks through the forest where timber was hauled out, some of them are still in use as footpaths or access roads. All that remains of the woodcutter’s house is a few piles of stones and a line of stones across the Stinkwood Trail.

The name Kirstenbosch

The name Kirstenbosch first appeared in 1795, when it was listed on an inventory of property drawn up and handed over to the British Occupying forces, but the origin of the name is uncertain. It suggests a link to the Kirsten family.

A number of families with the name Kirsten lived in the Cape at the time but none of them ever owned the property, and no connection has ever been traced. Nevertheless, it is probable that the land somehow became associated with one of the members of the Kirsten family, and became known as Kirstenbosch (Kirsten’s Forest).

Kirstenbosch bought and sold, farmed and neglected

In 1811, during the second British Occupation, Kirstenbosch was divided into two halves and sold. The southern half was sold to Colonel Christopher Bird, the Deputy Colonial Secretary. The northern half was granted to Henry Alexander, the Colonial Secretary. Bird did not stay long, but while he was in residence he built the bird-shaped pool around the spring in the Dell. He sold his half to Alexander in 1812.

Alexander built his homestead where the Marquee Lawn and Lecture Hall are today. Alexander died in 1818. His property, including Bird’s half, was sold to the widow Versveld in 1823, sold again the same year to D.G. Eksteen who then transferred it to his son-in-law, C.D.H. Cloete, in 1853. Cloete farmed the land of Kirstenbosch, planting fruit trees, vines and many oaks. The Cloetes lived in and extended the house built by Alexander.

In 1895 Cecil John Rhodes purchased Kirstenbosch. He appointed a caretaker, and planted the avenue of Camphor trees and Moreton Bay Figs in 1898. But the land was neglected and became rundown, and was overrun with feral pigs wallowing in muddy pools and feeding on the acorns. The farmhouse was left empty and fell into ruin.

Rhodes died in 1902 and bequeathed the land to the Government. The Forestry Department planted the Kirstenbosch estate and Cecelia with Pines and Eucalypts, and Kirstenbosch became even more neglected.

A Botanic Garden is born

Harold Pearson came to South Africa in 1903 to fill the newly established chair of Botany at the South African College. He saw the need for a botanic garden in Cape Town and set about achieving that goal. Pearson had decided that the eastern slopes were the most suitable site for the garden and was thinking it could be at Grootte Schuur Estate, which would then be linked to the university that was to be established there.

But in 1911 Neville Pillans, a young botanist and enthusiastic gardener who knew Kirstenbosch well and saw its possibilities, brought Pearson to see it. They drove up Rhodes’ Avenue in a Cape cart, stopped at the main gate, Pearson got out, surveyed the landscape and exclaimed, “This is the place!”

In May 1913 the Government set aside the estate of Kirstenbosch for the establishment of a National Botanic Garden at Kirstenbosch and agreed to contribute £1000 per annum. The Botanical Society was formed on 10 June 1913 and held its first general meeting on 31 July 1913. Its aims were to encourage the public to get involved in the development of Kirstenbosch, to augment the Government grants, to organise botanical shows, and to enlighten and instruct members on botanical subjects.

The Garden was to be controlled by a Board of five Trustees, three appointed by the Government, one by the Municipality of Cape Town and one by the Botanical Society. The Board held its first meeting on 16 June 1913, and appointed Pearson as Honorary Director (with no salary) and J.W. Mathews as Curator. A Secretary, a Ranger and a Gardener were also appointed. On the 1st of July 1913 the Kirstenbosch estate was handed over to the Board of Trustees.

The early years

The founders of Kirstenbosch were confronted with a neglected, overgrown farm, a ruined homestead, hordes of pigs, thickets of weeds and extensive plantations of alien plants. Much of the early work involved eradicating the aliens and clearing the land of weeds, and constructing pathways for easy access.

Development started in the Dell area and in the first ten to fifteen years many of the principle features of the garden were established. The main lawn was cleared and planted, hundreds of cycads were planted in the Cycad Amphitheatre, the rock work along the Bath stream and stone work in the Dell and the Cycad Amphitheatre was completed, Col. Bird’s Bath was restored, the Main Pond was excavated, Mathews’ Rockery and the Koppie were built, the Protea GardenErica Garden and Arboretum were begun, and the living plant collections were being built up.

In the early days, and indeed for the first 50 or so years, most of the work was done manually, using trolleys, mules, carts and crawlers. Today, we take machines and mechanisation for granted. The topography of Kirstenbosch is challenging for gardening, and for moving or placing rocks. Since the beginning, local stone has been used for cobbling, curbing, dry stone walls, rockeries, etc. and it has become an outstanding feature of the Garden. The high standard of the work is a testament to the skill and talent of the staff responsible, who have made a significant contribution to Kirstenbosch.

There were many hardships in those early years and funds were severely lacking. The First World War happened, causing the Government grant to be reduced and leaving only one gardener on duty. Additional income was earned from the sale of firewood and acorns (for pig food), and various economic plants were cultivated and sold.

A severe blow to the Garden was the untimely death of Professor Pearson in 1916. He is buried in the garden. Read more about Harold Pearson and see his grave. The second Director, Robert Harold Compton, arrived in 1919, and he and the Curator, J.W. Mathews, were responsible for an enormous amount of development.

The beautiful garden we have today is due largely to the foresight of its founders, the commitment and dedication of the staff during the early years, and the substantial support of the Botanical Society and its members over the years.

Missions and mottos

The mission and objectives of Kirstenbosch and the National Botanic Gardens, now the South African National Biodiversity Institute, has grown and developed through time. 

  • 1915 – Prof Pearson spoke of research, education and the preservation of our vegetation. 
  • 1938 – The Garden’s objectives were display, scientific study, economic, research and conservation. 
  • 1955 – The chief objectives were scientific and educational – involving collection, study, display and preservation. 
  • 1996 – To contribute significantly to an improved quality of life for all South Africans, within a dynamic organisational environment, through promoting the conservation and sustainable use of our indigenous plant life. 
  • 1998 – To promote the sustainable use, conservation, appreciation and enjoyment of the exceptionally rich plant life of South Africa, for the benefit of all its people. 
  • 2004 – To champion the exploration, conservation, sustainable use, appreciation and enjoyment of South Africa’s exceptionally rich biodiversity for all South Africans.
Scroll to top