South Africa’s first formal garden was laid out by Commander Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 and became known as the Company’s Garden. When Van Riebeeck was transferred to the East Indies, ten years later, the garden covered 18 ha, divided into sections by five walks lengthways and eleven crosswise. In time the cultivated area boasted a complete range of vegetables, several fruit species, including bananas and pineapples, as well as shrubs and flowers, both indigenous and imports from Europe, America and Asia.
Bisecting the gardens from north to south was a central broad walkway that became known as Government Avenue and is now a heritage site. The orange and lemon trees that originally lined the avenue were gradually replaced by oaks and elms. The ornamental gates near the northern end were designed by architect Louis Thibault. Van Riebeeck’s successors made alterations and additions of their own. Thus Simon van der Stel developed a garden for rare plants and trees from many parts of the world, and his son Willem built a menagerie at the northern end. A lodge was erected to accommodate official guests. This was later rebuilt higher up in the garden and became known as Government House, today Tuynhuys, the Cape Town office of the president.
Other features include an ornamental sundial (1781), a slave bell, a wisteria arbor, an aviary, an herb garden labelled in braille and a saffron pear tree planted during Van Riebeeck’s time. During the 18th and 19th centuries the gardens were gradually reduced from 18 ha to 6 ha to accommodate a number of stately buildings, including the Houses of Parliament, the National Gallery, St George’s Cathedral, the National Library of South Africa (formerly the South African Library) and the South African Museum.