Discovering fynbos

What is so special about dry and dull bush vegetation that clothes the mountain slopes in the Western Cape? You probably have never even heard of it. Even the locals often consider it just an annoying spiky obstacle on their way and a fire hazard to their homes. We do appreciate the occasional rooibos tea, geraniums in our gardens and proteas in our flower arrangements, however.

But there is a special beauty in fynbos, and to experience it you have to be a true adventurer and get close to discover the rich variety of delicate flowers and a truly fascinating toolkit of adaptations that allows these plants to thrive in harsh conditions through wind, droughts and fires.

With more than 7000 species the potential of discovery is endless. It is little wonder that even experts are often puzzled when trying to identify fynbos species. 

If you are like me and just starting your botanical journey into the Cape Floral Kingdom, I think, a good place to start is to learn to distinguish between the main fynbos families: Ericas, Proeas, Restios and Geopythes(this last one is actually a group of families). 

1. Ericas (Ericaceae) or heather. 

Found in moist acid soils, on the seaward facing slopes. These are the brightest flowering shrubs. You can identify them by small, often folded, hard and dryish leaves.

DSC_0387
Erica verticillata in the Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary. This species of Ericas now can only be seen in a few nature reserves in the Cape Town area and is extinct in the wild.
Erica Laeta. Picture from wikipedia. I have seen this beauty in Cederberg, but did not get a good photo of it. Next time!

2. Proteas  (Proteaceae).

Usually taller than 1.5 meters and can have colourful  flowers in the winter when in bloom. They occur at lower altitudes, deep and well drained soils, but require a more fertile soil than most fynbos. Identify them by larger, greener leaves and special shape of flowers.

DSC_0044
King protea (Protea cynaroides).  South African National flower spotted on top of the Table Mountain.

3. Restios(Restionaceae) or Cape Reeds.

Shallow-rooted group of species related to grass plants. Can be found in the drier parts of the fynbos region. Distinguishing restios from grasses and sedges is quite easy: they have no leaves, just scalelike bracts.

42844501_67522820ea_z
Elegia tectorum (previously Chondropetalum tectorum) or Cape Thatching Reed restio is a very common restio in the Cape Town region and one that is easy to spot by a distinct pattern of brown culms. Picture taken by Erick Hunt in San Francisco, but I hope to get a shot of one of the local ones soon.

4. Geophytes (bulbous plants).

These are mine and, perhaps, every girl’s favorite. You are probably the most familiar with this group of plants since it includes gladioluses, irises and orchids. The pretty geophytes usually flower during the cool wet months, but I have seen some already in March. Often flowers appear after the leaves have died, to give all the nutrition to the flower. The most spectacular sights is the mass flowering of bulbs after the fire. 

Brunsvigia orientalis at False Bay Nature Reserve. This is one of those bulbous plans that blossom after the leaves are gone. Sunbirds are the usual pollinators, so you have a good chance of spotting one near this plant.
Brunsvigia orientalis at False Bay Nature Reserve. This is one of those bulbous plans that blossom after the leaves are gone. Sunbirds are the usual pollinators, so you have a good chance of spotting one near this plant.
DSC_0047
Cluster Orchid (Disa ferruginea) on Table Mountain, spotted in the beginning of March. This sneaky orchid uses mimicry to get pollinated, it is very similar to a red iris (Tritoniopsis triticea) that flowers at the same time. You can distinguish it by the “tail” in the back of each flower, but butterfly pollinating both of them are not as smart.
DSC_0052
Watsonia tabularis on top of the Table Mountain
DSC_0055
Crassula falcata also blooms in March and was found on my Table Mountain Hike.

I hope this mini guide in fynbos would be useful for you. Now it’s just time to pack water and snacks and head out for your fynbos identification hike. Some of the nature reserves close to Cape Town where you can explore fynbos biodiversity and start identifying plants like a pro-adventurer:

A couple of hours drive away from Cape Town are also:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *