This week’s focus is South Africa’s Fynbos: That brown-looking scratchy vegetation that clothes the mountains and lowlands of the Cape. What is it? Where can I find it and why is it important? Why should we care?
Fynbos is an evergreen, hard-leaved Mediterranean type shrubland that occurs on nutrient-poor soils derived from predominantly quartzitic sandstones and limestones.
The name is derived from the Dutch word ‘Fijnboch’ which when literally translated means ‘fine bush’.
This vegetation type is distributed in an arc-shaped belt from the Bokkeveld Plateau near Vanrhysdorp in Namaqualand, southwards to the Cape Peninsula and eastwards to the vicinity of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Fynbos is also characterised by species from several key plant families: Restionaceae, Proteaceae, Ericaceae, Rutaceae and Iridaceae.
The Fynbos Biome is home to one of the world’s richest floras, with more than 9,000 species of plants occurring within an area the size of Malawi or Portugal.
Two thirds of these species are endemic to the region, thus meaning that they occur nowhere else on earth. Fynbos has 150–170 unique species per 1 000 km, making it 2–3 times more species diverse than the world’s rainforests.
South Africa’s Fynbos is considered to be one of the world’s six floral kingdoms and is the only one that occurs within a single country. The area encompassed by the Fynbos Biome is known as the Cape Floristic Region (CFR).
The CFR is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its rich and diverse flora as well as levels of endemism. It is also considered to be one of the world’s thirty Biodiversity Hotspots.
Scientists have debated for decades about why the vegetation of the CFR is so biodiverse and have to date failed to come up with a definitive answer that is accepted by all.
One theory is that slightly differing ratios in soil nutrients have created microhabitats to be occupied by a greater diversity of different species. These microhabits also form through variations in topography and microclimate.
Pollination biologists have also suggested that the diversity of plants is as a result of evolution through a diversity of different pollinators, from insects to mice.
It is particularly extraordinary that such a diverse flora and vegetation has evolved to occur on such nutrient-poor soils. The majority of fynbos soils are derived from quartzitic sandstones and have a composition similar to glass.
Fynbos is both fire-prone and fire-adapted. The vegetation needs regular fire at an interval of between 10–14 years in order to remain in optimum condition.
Fire is a critical part of nutrient cycling in fynbos, it prevents excessive build up of pathogens and rejuvenates old and senescent vegetation.
There are also some fynbos plant species that only grow and flower immediately after fire and chemicals from the smoke during a burn are a critical driver of fynbos seed germination post burn.
I implore you to go and and explore and find out for yourselves exactly what makes this globally important vegetation so special. Climb the mountains of the CFR, explore lowland fragments and protected areas on your doorstep. Take custodianship, raise awareness and take part in the conservation of this vital component of South Africa’s natural heritage.