You plan a winter holiday these days and find when you come home that you’ve missed a good chunk of spring. I’m not sure who is more confused; the plants or me. Back from two weeks in South Africa I find Magnolia sprengeri with one flower out, the big pink cup looking very sorry for itself, and rather absurd in incipient snow, while all its other flower buds had followed standing orders and waited. Anyone organized enough to have a timed detonation of colour must be cursing. I’m not at all keen on daffodils muscling in on the cold pallor of snowdrops. The white calm before anything so hectic as yellow appears is a precious moment. Not this year: and wasn’t that a bluebell I saw opening a tentative eyelid?
Down on the Cape there were days when the temperature was not so different from home. It’s been a wet summer, and a 30 knot easterly brought no cheer. It was the first time I had investigated the bizarre flora caught between mountains and sea known as the fynbos (and pronounced, near enough, ‘fainboss’). Its mixture of proteas, ericas and restios (various kinds of reeds, tall and short, green and brown) flourishes on thin sand and rock, Here and there I recognized a geranium, a heather or a buddleja salvifolia. There are arborescent and everlasting-flowered asters to confuse you, looking rather like people wandering up a hill with flowers in their hair. The nature reserve at Hermanus was an accessible place for a bit of botanizing, with good paths, useful labels and a charming garden of fynbos plants before you set off up the hills and into a ferny gully of assegai trees. A large part of the reserve had recently been burnt – but that’s the system. The fire restarts the cycle, clears the ground for seedlings and for alarming bright pink eruptions of amaryllis and nerines.
Inland, in the beautiful wine country of Stellenbosch and Franschoek, the hills are covered with what looks a similar
mixture of plants – although the species change, I was assured, almost by the yard. In one spot on the Simonsberg a fire five years ago had cleared the ground (including a vineyard) and set in motion a wonderful glinting grove of silver trees, Leucadendron argenteum. I’m not sure how rare they are: we didn’t see any others outside Kirstenbosch, the botanical garden on Table Mountain. Certainly the proprietor was proud of them. Nothing in the plant world is more exquisitely silver-silky. Convolvulus cneorum gives you the idea, but these grow upright to make handsome spiky trees.
This was at Rustenberg, a name well-known for wine, for Jersey cows and for being one of the loveliest and most fertile of Cape farms. My last visit there was 25 years ago, but I vividly remembered the English garden, the work of Peter and Pamela Barlow in the 1950s. It has gone full circle, from the formality of an almost Edwardian design, brick-walled and -stepped around a handsome white Cape Dutch manor house, through flowering profusion, English style, to an almost jungle phase, ready to be cut and cleared and started again by the next generation. Not the oaks, of course; at 60 years old magnificently shading the lawns. The surprise to me was how very English a garden can look here on the latitude of North Africa. (Africa is balanced across the Equator: the Cape and Tangier are both close to the 35th parallel). Given the water all our plants seem to grow here with vim and flower with abandon. The difference is the light: our pastel colours almost disappear by day, to emerge at dusk. The current Barlows, Simon and Rozanne, have created a new garden next door before starting on the old one at Rustenberg. Judging by the new creation the next cycle in the old garden will be as deeply romantic as the last.