The Western Cape region of South Africa is internationally recognized for its Mediterranean climate and capacity for producing excellent wine grapes. As a result a large export industry has developed along with wine tourism locally. Vineyards typically offer tasting rooms, vineyard tours, restaurants, gardens and accommodations. With a history of cultivation of grapes for over 300 years, many of these vineyards have substantially large land holdings engaging in activities aside from strictly viticulture including natural land preservation, habitat restoration and plant conservation.
Vergelegen wine estate was visited so as to explore the historic garden. Vergelegen was established in 1700 by the Governor of Cape Town, Willem Adriaan van der Stel. Willem was the son of Simon van der Stel who preceded him in the role Commander of Cape Town. Simon is noted in the European history and development of South Africa for his active role in exploration of the country. While many previous Cape Town Commanders were content handling their affairs from the relative comfort and protection of the Cape Town Fort, Simon on the other hand was an active explorer. Simon founded the town of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape area and did much to promote agriculture and horticulture in the region. Observing the climate of the Western Cape, Simon recognized the potential for a wine industry in the region, establishing his own vineyard known as Groot Constantia and promoting the practice among local farmers. Simon’s conviction toward the development of the industry was demonstrated by his political efforts and influence in the Netherlands. At the time, French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) had fled to the Netherlands for asylum after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that had protected their religious freedom in the past, resulting in persecution from the Catholics. Simon coordinated with the Dutch government to provide passage and refuge for the Huguenots in South Africa recognizing that many of them, being skilled French viticulturists, would jump-start the wine industry. This greatly helped in matching the region’s ideal wine growing climate with competent horticulturists and effectively laying the groundwork for putting South Africa on the map as one of the great wine producing countries of the world.
Williem Adriaan van der Stel shared his father’s passion for horticulture and established Vergelegen to be a vineyard and estate. Vergelegen in Dutch translates to “far situated” and is located roughly a day’s horse ride from Cape Town. Its remote location was reportedly in part to hide its size and enterprise since much of the estate was questionably funded through back channels from the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
With an international influence through Williem’s position in the Dutch East India Company, the development of horticultural was one of his primary interests. As a result, Vergelegn is a garden that has historically been involved in the introduction and growth of various plants to South Africa for their economic and ornamental qualities. The garden is a mixture of formal elements representing the European garden influence with many of the gardens designed on axis aligned on the cardinal directions, with hedge borders and walled gardens. The massive land holding is flanked by vineyards and the coastal mountain range at the property’s extent. An arboretum enchants the landscape with many mature tree specimens including English Oak (Quercus robur), Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), Coral Tree (Erythrina lysistemon), Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Tea (Camelia japonica), showing the international horticultural influence from Europe, East Asia and Africa. The garden boasts the oldest Quercus robur in the country, estimated to be over 300 years old and only barely remains standing through extreme arboricultural intervention.
Other sections of the estate are less manicured including small remnant stands of Podocarpus falcatus or the Yellowwood. Yellowwood historically was one of South Africa’s premier timber trees because of its large growth and distribution throughout the coastal Western Cape. Large individual trees can still found in areas such as the Garden Route and are recognized as South Africa’s tallest trees outside of cultivation. Often forming dense stands, small pockets of the iconic species can be viewed on the property.