The Japanese love them for a spot of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”. Michael Pollan saw them as a place to meet untamed nature halfway, while Claude Monet called Giverny his most beautiful masterpiece. However you choose to enjoy them, the restorative charms of a garden are impossible to ignore. And whether you prefer yours wild and untamed, or clipped and ordered, SA has plenty of them to explore.
Here are four of our favourites.
1. Vergelegen, Somerset West
Vergelegen may be most famous for its wines, but this historic estate is also home to some of the most remarkable gardens in the Cape. There are 18 separate gardens to discover — excluding a vast arboretum in the early stages of planting — that range from the world-renowned camellia garden to the historic octagonal garden that reflects the rich history of the estate. Nearby, the herb garden marks the estate’s farming heritage, while the East Garden — set near the excellent Stables restaurant — offers a child-friendly escape and garden maze.
Across the Lourens River, the yellowwood forest offers an enchanting walk, while below the expansive great lawn, boardwalks and wetland ponds lead towards a towering forest of camphor trees where tables are laid for summer picnics.
The enormous camphor trees were planted in the early-1700s and shade the original Cape Dutch homestead. They have been national monuments since 1942. A useful visitor map makes it easy to explore the gardens on your own, but the guided tours (daily at 9.39am, R50pp) are ideal for garden fundis.
2. Lowveld National Botanic Garden
Come for the cascades, stay for the cycads. That’s the selling point of the Lowveld National Botanical Garden; one of 11 botanical gardens managed by the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The Crocodile and Nels rivers are certainly a highlight of this lush escape on the outskirts of Mbombela, creating a number of impressive waterfalls.
Once you’ve admired the falls from the viewing platforms, or wandered the aerial boardwalk through the rainforest section, it’s the cycads you should seek. The garden is home to an impressive collection of these ancient trees, and plays a pivotal role in cycad conservation, establishing the country’s first cycad gene bank. Also look out for the wonderful floral displays from large clivia beds, Lowveld chestnuts and the well-known Sausage tree. Bring a picnic, or book a table at the on-site Tindlovu Restaurant.
3. Old Nectar, Stellenbosch
Shadowed by the craggy peaks of the Jonkershoek Mountains, Old Nectar is the passion project of acclaimed gardener and author Una van der Spuy, and an oasis in the Stellenbosch winelands. The garden dates back to 1941 — much of the original landscaping was done by Italian prisoners of war — and over the past eight decades has evolved into a serene escape filled with ancient trees, formal layouts and wilder corners.
Wander along the 200m pergola garden, shaded by roses and climbers, towards the terraced lawns where formal borders lead away from the original Cape Dutch manor house. Off to one side the bench garden offers a quiet space to relax and reflect, while on the millstone terrace an original millstone from the old watermill in Stellenbosch forms a welcome picnic table, shaded by oak and maple trees.
4. Hantam National Botanical Garden
In the springtime you never have to travel far in the Northern Cape to find dramatic floral displays, and around the town of Nieuwoudtville you’ll be hard-pressed to find a field not covered in blooms.
You could start planning your spring road-trip now, but the Hantam National Botanical Garden is also worth a visit in autumn. The secret season for this 6,000ha “garden” of preserved farmland is in late-March, when the amaryllis put on a remarkable display. The Brunsvigia bosmaniae is the star of the show as the “March lily” covers the landscape in pink, pom-pom flowers. Also look for the striking scented blooms of the Namaqua century plant, or gifbol.