Visitors to South Africa are often baffled to hear that it’s the world’s third most biodiverse country – after Brazil and Indonesia. They’re equally surprised to learn that 10% of the world’s plants are found here. Touch down in Cape Town, and you’re also in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the world’s smallest and most diverse plant province, Capensis. Other floral kingdoms – of which there are only six – occupy vast regions, such as Australia, or most of the Northern Hemisphere. By contrast, Capensis covers a smidgen of the earth’s land.
The chief component of this astonishing kingdom is fynbos – pronounced “˜fane-bos’, it literally means “˜fine bush’ – and is peculiar to the Cape. To most first-time observers, despite its abundance of beautiful blooms, much of it looks unexceptional. Patches of green and lots of scraggly, wiry tufts cover surfaces between granite rocks and slivers of beach sand. There’s virtually nothing resembling a tree, and a whole lot that would probably be ignored by the untrained eye, often with meagre floral displays distinguishing between one clump and the next. Charles Darwin himself, when he first travelled across the peninsula, likened the fynbos South Africa territory to a desert, disparagingly describing the region as a dull heath. But it’s a deception best uncloaked by an expert.
Mountain guide and fynbos specialist, Dominic Chadbon almost agrees, “˜It looks so insignificant, scrubby, stunted, and boring.’ “˜But it’s a paradox. From a distance it doesn’t look like much at all – very ordinary, and difficult to fathom what precisely makes it special. And when you’re in the midst of it, you’re overwhelmed, because there’s so much of it. And people also underestimate it, because it isn’t sexy,’ says Dominic. “˜It’s not in the same league as tropical rainforest, where everything seems exotic.’
Yet, botanically, its diversity is unparalleled. Apart from the extraordinary number of species living here – Table Mountain, which measures just 57 square kilometres, shelters the same number of species found in the UK, or Canada, or New Zealand – there are also incredible examples of extreme endemism, meaning you won’t find the same plant anywhere else on earth. Many of the plants here are adapted to very specific conditions and locations. There are some species confined to areas as small as one square kilometre. “˜Some fynbos plants,’ says Dominic “˜grow exclusively along 200 metre stretches of very specific rocky outcrops facing the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Point.’
This is all the result of the fact that for tens of millions of years the Cape Peninsula was an island. Remoteness helps explain why, of the 2,256 plant species on the 470 square kilometre Cape Peninsula, 150 occur nowhere else on earth. The downside is that this is also an extinction hotspot. The vast Cape Flats area sprawling out of the city has the world’s highest concentration of Red Data Book plant species – 15 per square kilometre are in danger of extinction. And in the centre of Kenilworth Racecourse, there’s a tiny nature reserve that’s said to shelter the highest diversity of plant life of any small urban park on the planet; the reserve even has its own endemic frog.
Most people recognise the proteas, ericas (or heathers), and reed-like restios that are the signature fynbos plants, but many families are virtually unknown because they’re so unique, endemic, and highly specialised – the kinds of plants that botanists travel across the globe to see. Proteas were named after Proteus, the Greek god known as the Shape-changer, son of Zeus. They come in so many shapes and forms that it’s hard to believe that they’re part of the same family. The same can be said for members of the daisy family, with over a thousand species within the fynbos South Africa area.
Fynbos gets really interesting when you consider the abundance of medicinal and other uses that the area’s indigenous people, the Khoisan, discovered many centuries ago. There are plants that have roots that when crushed and thrown into slow-moving streams or ponds, cause fish to be poisoned, floating belly-up to the surface. But the fish can be eaten because the plant’s toxin isn’t dangerous to humans. The roots of the spotted aloe can be used as a dye, and there are plants on Table Mountain that have been used to treat epilepsy. Others are used in ceremonies to summon ancestors and there is even a traditional form of Viagra growing here. Fynbos plants have been used in brandies, to make teas, tobacco and rope. And the sap of the sugar bush protea was used by European colonists as a sweetener.
Perhaps it’s the reproductive process of fynbos plants that is most fascinating of all. To survive in areas where the soil is virtually barren and climatic conditions quite extreme, these plants have developed myriad adaptations to ensure pollination. Some colourful blooms that emerge in spring are incredibly nuanced. Red disa – an elegant orchid that’s the symbol of the Western Cape – is pollinated exclusively by the Table Mountain beauty butterfly. The butterfly, explains Dominic, “˜is mad for red,’ so the disa waits until February, the hottest month of the year, to produce its big, bright red flower – because that’s when the butterfly makes its appearance.
Fynbos also has an astonishing relationship with fire. Some plants are incredibly fire-resistant – fire heath, for example, can resist the flame from a blowtorch. However, many fynbos seeds can remain underground, dormant for over 30 or 40 years, often waiting for specific fire-related conditions to trigger germination. Dominic points out varieties of protea whose fruit won’t open until there’s a fire. Some are coated with a kind of insulating and waterproofing agent – only when there’s a fire does the fruit crack open and the seed is nudged out. And King Proteas have dormant buds beneath their bark that are triggered by the chemicals in smoke – when there’s a fire, the new bush grows from the old one’s burnt stumps. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s an incredibly evolved survival strategy ensuring that new generations germinate mostly where older plants have been burned away, so there’s less competition. Restios, meanwhile, drop seeds coated in something that’s tasty and nutritious to ants. The ants store these seeds underground, feed off the coating, and when there’s a fire, the chemicals in the smoke trigger germination, so the seeds start to grow just as the ground is getting fresh nutrients.
You needn’t wait for a big burn to witness the miracle of fynbos, though. Beneath the ground are billions of fynbos bulbs waiting for the winter rains so they can emerge and flower in spring. Every year this seemingly barren earth reveals a treasure trove – orchids, hyacinths, gladioli, irises, watsonias, freesias”¦myriad little miracles across the Cape Floral Kingdom. Look carefully, though, because there’s always the possibility of spotting something so rare you might be the last person ever to set eyes on it.
* Dominic Chadbon (aka The Fynbos Guy) specialises in half-day, full-day, and multi-day fynbos-spotting hikes, predominantly in and around Cape Town.
Header Image: A Cape sugarbird on a King protea © Neil Bradfield/iStock/Thinkstock
Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal direct service to Cape Town from London.
Have you seen the Fynbos in South Africa? What did you make of the Cape Floral Kingdom? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain