Phoenix plants – fynbos reemerging after fire

A couple of weeks ago all people talked about in and around Cape Town was the monumental fire, raging through 5,500 hectares of the Cape Peninsula. Thanks to all the hard work that firefighters and hundreds of volunteers put into it, fighting extreme temperatures and wind, the fire has been stopped. Fires always cause a public outcry, concern of people’s safety and a lot of misinformation, especially about the role it plays in the fynbos ecosystem.

Not everyone knows that fynbos are well adapted to burn and for many species fire is essential for their reproduction. Some seeds have been waiting for years buried in the soil for the unique combination of nutrients that comes from the fire they need to grow. Many fynbos species need fire to release their seeds from tightly packed cones.

Each fire is a random process, a lottery, where it’s hard to predict how the ecosystem will look like, some plants will resprout and flourish, some will perish forever. The interplay of temperature, wind and rain will decide the faith of each seed and root.

I had an exciting opportunity to witness the rebirth of fynbos after fire at the Kenilworth Conservation Area this week.

Kenilworth Conservation Area is a small nature reserve that is located in the middle of the horse race course. Due to its location this 50 ha patch of land has been undisturbed for more than 100 years and naturally became the best preserved Sand Fynbos Area in the Western Cape. The area consists of permanent and seasonal wetlands and lowland fynbos. It’s home to several endangered plant species and the cute microfrog.

The fire at Kenilworth was happening a bit earlier (18th of Feb) than the big fire raging in Muizenberg and was a controlled ecological fire to stimulate the fynbos ecosystem before the rain season.
From afar the area just looks like a warzone, destroyed and sad. But if you get closer you’ll see proteas’ and leucodendrons’ seeds released into the soil, just waiting for the April rains, grasses and restios growing in full power again and wonderful bulbs emerging from the ashes. And the tough alien invasive plants resprouting too, only to create more work for the field rangers removing them to give space to the fynbos.

March lilies (Amaryllis Belladonna) are the first to emerge after the fire
March lilies (Amaryllis Belladonna) are the first to emerge after the fire
Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) coming up from the ashes.
Arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) coming up from the ashes.
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Carpet Pelargoniums taking over the opened landscape
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Restios and grounds are the fastest to claim their ground after fire
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Controlled fires are carried out in stages to allow animals to find safety. This mole snake was not fortunate enough to do it anyways.
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The heat of flames opens up the woody cones of the leucadendrons and proteas and the seeds drop out to the newly fertilised soil, waiting to be dispersed by rodents and ants.
Erica verticillata, needs fire to release the seeds to the soil
Erica verticillata, needs fire to release the seeds to the soil
Bulbina favosa
Bulbina favosa taking a chance to blossom in the open canopy after fire.
Some alien trees are unfortunately quite resilient to fire as well and quickly resprout.
Some alien trees are unfortunately quite resilient to fire as well and quickly resprout.

Kenilworth Racecourse is a privately owned land, so you can only visit the reserve by prior arrangement and with educational or research purpose. You can also join the “Friends of Kenilworth Conservation area”  group and join one of many events they arrange at the reserve. Contact them to arrange a visit or for more info, it should be really nice there in the spring when many plants are in bloom or go in the winter, when the frogs are out!

To learn more about how fire affects the fynbos ecosystems and see more beautiful pics of their rebirth, check out this recent article in African Geographic: RISING FROM THE FLAMES IN TABLE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

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