A guide to the glory we find all around us

Review: Vivien Horler

Field Guide to Fynbos, by John Manning  (Struik Nature)

field guide to fynbosA walk on the mountain at Silvermine or anywhere on the Table Mountain chain will reveal hundreds of plants with tiny jewel-like flowers, in colours ranging from yellow to white, pink, blue and purple.

There are so many of them, along with the bigger plants such as proteas and silver trees, that it is sobering to encounter this statistic: worldwide around 10% of all plant species are rare or endangered. But in the south-western Cape as many as 30% are considered rare or endangered, more than 2 000 species.

And when you think that two-thirds of fynbos plants are endemic – they occur nowhere else – it is a concern.

Author John Manning, a botanist with the SA National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town, says the greatest threat to fynbos is the transformation of the habitat for urban development, agriculture and forests. Urban sprawl around Cape Town has led to the extinction of several species in recent years.

Other threats include alien species such as Australian wattles and hakea, too-frequent fires, and the collection of wild plants for traditional medicines.

As we all know, the Cape Floristic Region is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms and is one of the richest, with 9 000 species of flowering plants. The region stretches in a curve from around Vanrhyndorp to east of Port Elizabeth. Conservation International, an American-based organisation working to conserve the Earth’s living heritage, has named the Cape Floristic Region as one of around 30 critical biological hotspots on the globe.

The first fynbos to be studied in Europe was a dried flowerhead of Protea Neriifolia which had been collected from mountain slopes above False Bay by the crew of a Dutch East Indiaman. Manning says European botanists were baffled by its resemblance to a oversized thistle, “but this first tentative harbinger was soon followed by the arrival of bulbs of several species of amaryllis, hyacinth and iris. The flowering of these bulbs in Holland in the first years of the 17th century ignited a passion for fynbos flowers that has shown no sign of abating”.

The English explorer William Burchell wrote in November 1810: “At every step a different plant appeared; and it is not an exaggerated description, if it should be compared to a botanic garden…”

Manning says that by contrast, early Dutch residents in the Cape didn’t take much interest in the local vegetation, surprising Burchell by describing what he saw as “glorious heaths” as bosjes (bushes).

Fynbos grows in nutrient-poor soils, and has had to evolve mechanisms to thrive, which include dependence on fire which recycles plants and enriches the soil.

Fynbos relies on a variety of pollinators, ranging from butterflies and monkey beetles to horseflies and various birds including sunbirds and sugarbirds. And 35 species of proteas rely on various mice for pollination.

This guide was first published in 2007, but has been completely updated and describes more than a thousand species, focusing on the most common, as well as species with showy flowers.

For each species it provides the scientific name and common names – did you know the arum lily is also called the varklelie (pig lily), which seems a bit rude; comparisons with similar species, notes on tradition uses, full colour photographs, a distribution map and an indication of when the plants bloom.

Many fynbos species have wide distribution, like the arum, but to my surprise, silver trees (Leucadendron argenteum) are found naturally only on granite and clay slopes from the Cape Peninsula to Somerset West. I have seen them growing in granite-type soils of western Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, where you can spot a lot of our plants, from felicias and pelargoniums to agapanthus and proteas).

In fact in its “garden of extinction” Kirstenbosch had a whorled heath plant, once common along a strip of land between the Main Road and what is now the M5, from Mowbray to Zeekoevlei. A sprig is featured on the Bergvliet Primary School badge. The Sanbi website says it was so popular with flowersellers who sold it in fynbos bouquets that it went extinct in the wild – but thanks to the Abbey Gardens on the Scilly island of Tresco, Kirstenbosch was able to reintroduce it.

My only quibble with this wonderful book is its weight – it will weigh your rucksack down on a hike. But it is a glorious reminder of the natural wealth we have on our doorstep.

*A version of this review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on August 26, 2018.

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