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TThe Eastern Cape town of Bedford is famous for its annual Garden Festival but has another floral attraction – a rosarium. Here the heritage of old roses, ancestors of our modern cultivars, have been preserved and are thriving in an arboretum of tall trees.
South Africa’s old roses have particularly interesting stories to tell. Cape Town-based horticulturist Gwen Fagan devoted an entire book to them.
Called Roses at the Cape of Good Hope, the book takes you from the first moment Jan van Riebeeck plucked a bloom in the Cape in 1657 (a scant 5 years after Europeans first settled here) to 1910, when hybridised tea roses first made an appearance, ousting their older ancestors.
It was the 1820 British Settlers who brought over much of the original rose rootstock to the Eastern Cape and planted them in gardens around Bedford, Somerset East, Graaff-Reinet and Hogsback.
When rose doyenne Fagan started hunting for older rose plants, she found that farms and old graveyards in the Eastern Cape were true treasure troves. Here she found 60% of the country’s old rose mother stock, which she was able to propagate.
Because there were no nurseries here, there was no incentive to hack out the old and plant the new. Also, the climate is harsh, and what grows well is generally left alone to carry on, scrambling over fences, up trees and over houses. Perfumed flowers like the old roses made them even more popular.
Her stories inspired some of the South African Heritage Rose Society members. But where to house Fagan's carefully collected beauties? Clearly a garden of preservation was needed where the public could enjoy them, be educated about how to grow them, and where budwood could be grown.
Eventually, Bedford was chosen as the old rose sanctuary. It seemed particularly appropriate since the town is already well known for its annual Garden Festival in October.
In October 2011, the first roses were planted at Bedford’s Camelot Arboretum. Today they are safe and thriving in the town’s good deep soils. They grow in happy companionship with indigenous pelargoniums, sutera and agapanthus, clambering up shrubs and shady trees, filling the garden with a heavenly fragrance.
Here you will find roses hardly ever seen in modern gardens. They have quaint names like Mermaid, General Gallieni, Pompon la Bourgogne, Maiden’s Blush and Fanny la France. Eventually this sanctuary will protect more than 2 000 roses.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Bedford SA Rosarium
Kim van Niekerk
Cell: +27 (0)82 775 5178
How to get here
The closest airport is at Port Elizabeth, about 2 hours’ drive away. From PE, take the N10 national road north. After about 120km, you’ll pass the little town of Cookhouse. 12km onwards is the turnoff to Bedford and Adelaide. Bedford is about 15 minutes’ drive along this road. Ask for directions to get to the rosarium.
Bedford is 1 hour from Grahamstown and the Addo Elephant National Park, and about 45 minutes from Cradock.
Best time to visit
September, October and November are spectacular from a flower point of view. Depending on the rains, there is often a flush of roses in March and April.
Things to do
The Cape Midlands (including Bedford, Cradock, Somerset East and Graaff-Reinet) have many farm gardens featuring the old roses in profusion – and some are 100 years old or more.
Heather Leppan, who lived in Somerset East, was a great champion of heritage roses, and you’ll find them clambering all over the town, especially in the older sections and at the Walter Battiss Museum.
The gardens around the Victoria Manor Hotel in Cradock feature many beautiful and rare old roses.
The town of Graaff-Reinet and its surrounds are also well known for heritage rose varieties.
Tours to do
Phone ahead for a personalised tour of the rosarium and possibly other gardens.
You can easily drive the roads with an ordinary sedan car, although there are some areas in the mountains that are more easily tackled with a 4x4. You could also cycle around.
What will it cost?
A voluntary donation is asked except during Bedford Garden Festival time, when the cost is approx. R20 per person.
Length of stay
Come for at least 2 nights or more. The districts and farms around Bedford are exceptionally beautiful and perfect for birding, mountain biking or hiking.
What to pack
If you’re visiting in early spring or summer (which is recommended for best flower displays), between September and March, bring along a hat, sunblock and comfortable walking shoes.
Where to stay
Bedford has a number of beautiful guesthouses and nearby farmstays where you will probably see heritage roses blooming away in lovely historic gardens.
What to eat
Bedford has excellent eateries and cafes.
Bedford’s famous Garden Festival happens over the last weekend of October every year. Gardeners and countryside-lovers from all over the country and even Europe and England make a point of coming here to see the glorious gardens on show.