Kirstenbosch is home to rare living fossils. True story!

Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens’ ancient cycad arena contains cycads so rare that collectors go to extreme lengths to possess them.

It is the magnificent setting on the slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain that sets Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens apart from any other show garden in the world. It is a floral stage presented at its best, courtesy of the towering backdrop of Table Mountain. This botanical theatre shows off Southern Africa’s greatest floral talents in their utmost glory.

A trip to Kirstenbosch rates in the top five things to do for visitors to Cape Town and walking the paths, lawns and hillsides inside the gardens is a soothing experience that should not be hurried. Actually, it is almost impossible to rush around Kirstenbosch because nature’s forces — like steep gradients, captivating flower displays and park benches with sweeping vistas — just won’t let you.

Make a point of walking to the little natural amphitheatre on a stepped hillside in the oldest part of the gardens. This amphitheatre contains cycads some hundreds of years old. Cycads are the oldest living seed plants to have survived three mass extinction events in Earth’s history and were around during the Jurassic Period (150-200 million years ago) — they have spikes to stop dinosaurs from treading on them!

Illegal trade in cycads has become as serious a problem as drug smuggling, and so precious is the Encephalartos woodii cycad in Kirstenbosch that it is caged for its own protection. It is just one male of the almost extinct species and no female is known to exist. Luckily, it can be propagated from offshoots so the species does have a future, but the cage is there to stop enthusiasts stealing side shoots from this singular plant.

It wasn’t the woodii that was targeted by a highly organised gang of thieves in a military-style raid inside Kirstenbosch in the dead of night. They had their sights set on 22 critically-endangered Albany cycads and two rare Grahamstown cycads.  They stole the lot, not in one night, but in two daring robberies in August 2015. It’s still not understood how the thieves made off with 24 cycads from the mountainside inside security fences without leaving any trace, other than carefully dug holes in the ground. Nor is it known who turned to crime to possess these living fossils.

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