Kneeling to the Fynbos

Laughing Waters Farm is ideally located in the Overberg, close to the sea, the mountains, and immersed in the fynbos, South Africa’s incredibly diverse vegetation type. To the lazy or inexperienced eye, fynbos lacks both magnitude and the conspicuousness of resident creatures to be awarded a BIG WOW, but should you get down on your knees amongst it and really look … and smell and feel, you will appreciate the beauty and wonder of the nature surrounding us. 

The world is filled with wondrous places where nature amazes us: soaring forests of redwoods, plunging oceanic cliffs populated by myriads of brilliantly coloured sea creatures, ancient forests and deserts and the unique plants and animals that have evolved within them, the magnificence of the African savanna and its abundant and visible mammals, the tsingy of Madagascar[1] with a unique species of crocodile living in the underground pools of caves. 

THANK YOU David Attenborough for bringing these wonders so vividly alive for us!  There is more and more…! 

But.  How about our very own natural environment? We have the sea, we have the mountains, we have the Fynbos.  To the lazy or inexperienced eye, fynbos lacks both magnitude and the conspicuousness of resident creatures to be awarded a BIG WOW.  Yes, there are the flowers, and regular swathes of colour exhibitions that seem to each take their turn, the pinks, whites, yellows, reds, purples.  But unless you get down on your knees amongst it and really look … and smell and feel, you will not appreciate the wonder of this nature immediately around us.  Once you have done this, it will not be easy to pass seemingly drab or uniform looking vegetation without your curiosity being raised.

Fynbos is the dominant of the two vegetation types[2] of the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) which stretches from the Northern to the Eastern Cape[3].  The CFR 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 has been in response to the need to survive harsh climatic conditions alternating with taking advantage of periods of abundance.  One of the most distinctive features of the fynbos is the incredible diversity of erica species.  Of the 860 erica species in the world, 760 are found in South Africa with 85% restricted to the Cape Flora[4].  I once heard someone say that of all insects God loves beetles most of all (given their plentiful diversity).  Perhaps God feels the same for the delicate ericas.   In undisturbed fynbos, in addition to ericas, proteas, buchus and restios are the most common and differentiate fynbos from other vegetation types. 

Orange Breasted Sunbird feeding on the nectar of ericas

Fynbos Did You Know’s

  • Although seemingly absent there are many small creatures that feed on and live amongst the plants and which are often essential to the survival and diversity of fynbos.
  • Species’ flowering times appear to be linked to the activity of pollinators or seed dispersers[2].  Plants with similar coloured flowers have evolved to flower at the same time, increasing the likelihood of attracting their pollinators: birds and butterflies like red, whilst bees like blues, purples, whites and yellow. 
  • The low nutrient soil of the CFR does not limit the production of sugar rich nectar by some plants, to the enthusiasm of bird pollinators.
  • To cope with nutrient scarcity there are about 100 fynbos species that are root parasites, deriving their nutrients from roots of the Proteacea.  Others, such as the sundews, survive through carnivory, digesting insects through the sticky glandular hairs on their leaves.
  • Mammal-pollinated species flower mainly in spring, coinciding with the high energy requirements of animals whilst breeding. There are specialised earth-hugging proteas that attract mice with flowers that give off a strong yeast smell.
  • Ants indigenous to the fynbos bury fynbos seeds without eating them [2], facilitating their dispersal.  The invasive and competitive Argentine ant simply eats the seed.
  • Protea species mostly flower in winter as they require fire to activate germination of their seeds. 

As an Ecologist I cannot not mention the human-made threats to the fynbos biome, most importantly habitat destruction, followed by the introduction of invasive flora and fauna[5], non-sustainable harvesting, no fire/too much fire, and the resultant disruption of the sensitive and essential relationships between endemic plants and animals that rely on one another and their habitat for their growth and reproduction. 

A last thought: Wouldn’t it be great to create a World Fynbos Day?  To reflect our appreciation of the many little things in life, which contribute to the big things, and which are often the most important of all.

[1] Tsingy being the Malagasy word for ‘walking on tiptoes’ through nearly impenetrable limestone needles.

[2] Fynbos, South Africa’s Unique floral Kingdom. R. Cowling & D. Richardson, 1995.

[3] Renosterveld is the second, growing mostly on red clayey soils; fynbos grows on grey sandy soils.

[4] Field Guide to the Flora of Grootbos Nature Reserve and the Walker Bay region. S. Privett & H. Lutzeyer, 2010.

[5] An introduction to sustainable harvesting of some commercially utilised indigenous plant species in the Cape floristic region. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, 2004.

Kirsten Neke