It is well known that first impressions count, and my first impressions of Kagoshima Flower Garden were excellent.

The garden is located on Cape Nagasakibana on the southern tip of the Satsuma Peninsula, close to Ibusuki, a small seaside city known for its natural hot springs. Kagoshima Flower Garden is still very young, having opened to the public in 1996. The total area is 36.5 hectares, of which 18 hectares are genkyo hozon rin (protected natural woodland), primarily Japanese black pines (kuromatsu, Pinus thunbergii). The gardens are cleverly designed to harmonize with this natural pine woodland.

On a clear day the view from the garden is out of this world. Looking east, the natural setting is very reminiscent of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. The mountain you see from this side of the gardens is Takeyama. The climate down here is semitropical, with a mean average annual temperature of 18.1 C. Annual precipitation is 1,950 mm, 40 percent of which falls during the rainy season in June-July.

The gardens are situated right on the coast in a natural fog belt, making it ideal for cultivating plants from similar natural microclimates in Australia and South Africa. The gardens are also frost-free. The major natural enemy is typhoons, which strike during the summer and early autumn.

There is a “contest garden,” a formal seasonal flower display garden surrounded by lush green lawn, which is in turn enclosed by black pine woodland. Dutch tulips were in full bloom in late March.

I also saw heath-leafed banksia (Banksia ericifolia) coming into full bloom. The flower spike is most unusual: Flowers open from the bottom upwards, and each flower head contains about 1,000 individual flowers packed together. Native to the sandstone country and coastline around Sydney, the genus is named after the English naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who sailed with Captain Cook on his first voyage to the Pacific.

Close by was the plant pincushion flower, in the same family (Proteaceae) as the heath-leafed banksia, but native to South Africa. The botanical name is Leucospermum cordifolium. The flower head is conelike up to 12 cm in diameter, and white to crimson in color.

Although this whole garden is basically European in design, the Japanese skill of borrowing scenery from outside the garden (shakkei) is used here. The mountain just beyond the pine trees is Mount Kaimon (922 meters), locally known as Satsuma-Fuji because of its impressive conical shape.

One of the real success stories in the garden is the Norfolk Island pine, or shima nanyo sugi (Araucaria heterophylla). Araucaria is a genus of evergreen conifers confined to the Southern Hemisphere. The Norfolk Island pine is not a pine, despite its common name, and is endemic to Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, where it grows up to 70 meters high! In Kagoshima it has grown better than expected thanks to the black pines, which protect the young trees from strong sea winds. Its leaves are broadly awl-shaped and the main branches are horizontal.

Inside the main entrance hall is the jungle garden. Many plants grown here originate on Amami-Oshima, 600 km to the south. A small waterfall sets the scene, and during the hot days of summer it must feel like a steamy jungle indeed. The central tree is a banyan, or fig tree (bengaru bodaiju, Ficus benghalensis). It should grow into a spectacular tree, with aerial roots that hang to the ground.

The sea fig is the garden’s symbol. This fig tree (akou, Ficus superba) is native to coastal areas in the warm parts of Japan, including the Satsuma Peninsula. It is often planted around houses to give protection from the coastal winds, since, except for a brief period in spring, the tree is evergreen. In May, flowers are borne directly on the stems and trunk, and the small oval fruits that follow give the tree a strange appearance.

There is a European-style knot garden, which looks best when viewed from above. That way you can see the intricate designs of the neatly clipped box hedge. The white building behind serves as a tea shop.

From May until the end of July the bougainvilleas bloom. Native to tropical and subtropical South America, these flowers have very showy bracts, and colors range from dark pink to white. No less than 13 species and cultivars are trained on tall poles.

A small woodland garden contains heat-tolerant European rhododendrons (seiyo shakunage). Actually the common name is misleading. These rhododendrons are actually from the Himalayas, but the hybrids were made in European nurseries. During the summer months the ground beneath the rhododendrons is carpeted with plantain lilies.

The garden has a unique greenhouse — without side walls. Beneath the glass roof is a beautiful walk-around landscaped garden. The central section has a rich green lawn with two fountains surrounded by white balustrades.

Year round you can view the good collection of false bird-of-paradise plants (Heliconia), usually found in the American tropics, Southeast Asia and Polynesia. They are large evergreen herbs with bananalike foliage. Flowers can be erect or pendulous with brightly colored bracts. Heliconia bihai is native to South America, where it has various colloquial names such as wild bird, firebird, macaw flower and balisier. The banana-shaped leaves can grow to 2 meters, stems up to 5 meters and the inflorescences up to 100 cm.

The garden has 28 species of yashi (palm) from around the world. The climate down here is ideally suited to growing these lovely trees. The prize for the most interesting palm goes to the sealing-wax palm (hime shojo yashi, Cyrtostachys lakka). This sun-loving palm is native to East Asia, where it grows to 10 meters; in cultivation it attains 3-4 meters. The trunk, petiole and rachis (a rachis is the axis of a compound leaf) are bright red, hence its other common name, lipstick palm.

The garden boasts over 200 cultivars of hibiscus. Hibiscus bloom from June to December. The mild climate enables gardeners to cultivate tender plants outside.

This is a big garden so you will require at least half a day to take in all the sights. There is a restaurant, and if the day suddenly becomes wet, don’t worry, there is a good library containing over 3,500 horticulture books, some in English. CDs and videos are available to assist you with your nature study, and throughout the year there are events and lectures.