During a brief pause in precipitation I Ieap from the house, happy to momentarily escape our pent-up kids and attention seeking cats. A frog gives me a jump, hopping across my foot. The rain soaks into the crackled grass.
Renewed green vitality. Muddy puddles hopscotch across the dirt road offering up an immediate image of my splashing girls with their rain-boots, laughing loudly. Only the animals appear a little miserable, heads-down and huddling. A soggy sugarbird barely lifts itself from the protea bush when we pass closely by.
It is Monday. The mood is high. The enjoyment of rain, reprieve from the heat and routine watering of the protea fields. The guys are turning the compost heaps and feeding kelp and earthworm tea to the freshly planted winter vegetable seedlings. Tomorrow is harvest day and there are red peppers, aubergines, butternuts and pumpkins, lettuce and herbs to take to the local Stanford market. And flowers. The proteas are just beginning to bloom! Pink Ice and Sylvia, the first after a long break following the Kings. Niobie and Claire are next. I love having flowers to share with our family and friends, guests and the ‘locals’ through the village market. Top-quality flowers are exported to Italy, Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, China…
Rain and farming are so visibly entwined. As now are the increasingly scrutinised levels of the dams and heightened awareness of the critical water supply to burgeoning Cape Town and other dry or big towns and cities in South Africa. In the Overberg we are fortunate to have large underground water reserves. A strong spring of excellent fresh water provides for our domestic and vegetable growing needs. The small river that runs down the Sondagskloof is full and gurgling now, its surface bubbling. It may soon all but dry up again after providing for a couple of flower and wine farms. The dairy farm downriver may run short. Situations of a shared water source remind me of the movie Jean du Florette which as a child I was enthralled with. The gripping story unfolds about two neighbouring farms and their treacherous fight over water for their respective survival.
I go walking with the dogs. There is a light drizzle and mist. I breathe in the moistness. Our movement through the fynbos releases fragrances with a central smell of citrus. Brilliant red trumpet-shaped Anapalina announce their presence, petals translucent with gleaming rain drops. I stoop to marvel at a subtle cobweb close to the ground, the presence of which is given away by its glittering catch of silver droplets. Little pools of rainwater have collected in the burnt umber and ochre hollows of the small volcanic rocks that lie scattered everywhere. Wild lobelia with delicate violet flowers and pink ericas grow in the middelmannetjie[i]. Amazing that such seemingly fragile plants can grow out of this gravel. Flowering on the farm at the moment and yes, their names hooked my attention, are: erica’s, including Cat’s Tail, Fire Heath, Nudiflora and Salt and Pepper, the Everlasting or Cape Strawflower, the Candelabra and the April Fool or Paintbrush.
The Cape Floristic Region, stretching from the Northern to the Eastern Cape, is by far the smallest floral kingdom in the world and yet it holds 9 250 indigenous flowering plant species, more than any of the others! This diversification in species has been in response to the need to survive harsh climatic conditions alternating with taking advantage of periods of abundance. Ericas, proteas and restios are dominant, growing on acid, nutrient poor sandy soils. I love the little rhyme to distinguish between the grass-like vegetation of the fynbos: “Sedges have edges and restios are round, grasses have knees that bend to the ground”.
There are clear swathes of colour that appear to take their
turn, the pinks, whites, yellows, reds and purples. Plants with similar coloured flowers have
evolved to flower at the same time, increasing the likelihood of attracting
their pollinators and seed dispersers: birds and butterflies like red, whilst
bees like blues, purples, whites and yellow[ii].
In the Mediterranean winter-rainfall climate of
the Western Cape, many fynbos plants flower at the driest time so that their
pollen has less of a chance of getting wet. The seeds are released during the wet winter
months. Other species, including
proteas, flower in winter as they require hot fire to activate germination of
their seeds. Fires are most likely during summer and autumn
and they are predictably followed by cool, wet conditions which provide
reliable cues for seed germination[iii]. Protea plants may wait for as many as 15
years for a fire of adequate heat intensity.
These are fires that are difficult to control.
As a conservationist I cannot not mention the human-made threats to the fynbos biome, most importantly habitat destruction by agriculture. Conversion to monoculture fields of grain, vineyards and pastures threatens animals, plants and ecosystems. Our farm has remained primarily wild fynbos, admittedly because it is mountainous and largely unsuitable for farming. Within large arable farms, fynbos conservation might involve creating adequately sized islands of species rich fynbos within the field/orchard with distances between these of a suitable distance for pollinators and seed dispersers to travel. In addition to agriculture, alien invasive plant species account for the bulk of habitat destruction in the Cape Floristic Region, disrupting the sensitive and essential relationships between endemic plants and animals that rely on one another and their habitat for their growth and reproduction. Urbanisation, although accounting for very little destruction of the fynbos habitat, occurs in areas of high diversity and unique species. With a radically growing population, it is intrinsically important that we conserve areas of fynbos to ensure diversity and the health of both ecosystems and humans. We have World Water Day raising awareness for our life-giving water resources and their sustainable management. Wouldn’t it be great to create a World Fynbos Day to reflect our appreciation of intricate ecosystems and the many little things, which contribute to the big things in life, and which are often the most important of all.
With reference to:
The Ecology of Fynbos. Nutrients, Fire and Diversity, edited by R. M. Cowling, 1992.
Field Guide to the Flora of Grootbos Nature Reserve and the Walker Bay Region, S. Privett and H. Lutzeyer, 2010.
[i] Middelmannetjie – an Afrikaans word literally translated into “man in the middle”; a ridge between ruts made by the wheels of cars in a dirt or gravel road.
[ii] Fynbos, South Africa’s Unique floral Kingdom. R. Cowling & D. Richardson, 1995.
[iii] Westoby 1980, cited in The Ecology of Fynbos. Nutrients, Fire and Diversity, R. M. Cowling, 1992.