Fynbos is an Afrikaans translation of the Dutch word “Fijnbosch” and roughly translates as “Fine Bush” in English. The true meaning of the term is debatable but had its origin in the time of the Dutch settlement at the Cape in the 17th Century. Most of the vegetation had timber too fine and slender to be used in construction and is argued to be the reason for referring to it as fine-bush. Others say it merely refers to the fine, needle-like leaves of many of the species.
Fynbos as a term is hard to define but easy to recognize as predominantly hard, tough, evergreen, small-leaved, woody-stemmed, fire-prone shrubs that thrive on the regions sandy and rocky nutrient poor soils.
Fynbos is characterised by four main growth forms:
- wiry reed-like plants (restioids)
- tall protea shrubs with large leaves (proteoids)
- heath-like shrubs (ericoids)
- bulbous herbs (geophytes).
The restoids, or Cape Reed Family predominates the Fynbos landscape and comprise all 310 species in the Restionaceae, a family closely related to the grasses and are as such often described as shrubby grasses. Restionaceae forms the unique distinguishing part of fynbos and is always present in the fynbos landscape, if even as a 5% representation. They are well adapted to the climatic conditions of the South western cape with their characteristic absent or reduced leaves and tough, wiry stems and seem to often replace grasses on nutrient-poor soils in an area often water-logged with winter rainfall. Other restoids include various sedges and grasses such as ‘pyp gras’ (Ehrharta erecta) and thatching grass (Hyparrhenia hirta) both of which provides food for the Table Mountain Beauty butterfly, unique pollinator of red flowers such as Disa uniflora.
The tallest shrubs in fynbos are the proteoids with their elliptical, leathery leaves. Reaching 1 – 3 meters in height, proteoids encompass a wide range of shrub shapes and floral forms. In southern Africa there are about 360 species of Proteoids, of which more than 330 species are confined to the Cape Foral Kingdom. The Protea species is possibly the best know of the Proteoids, with close to 30 occuring in the area including the sugarbush (Protea repens) and the king protea (Protea cynaroides), South Africa’s national flower. Other genera include the pincushion (Leucospermum), cone bush (Leucadendron), Aulax, Mimetes and Serruria.
In 1735, the Swedish botanist & father of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus received some plants to name from the Cape and he was apparently so perplexed and confused by the different yet similar forms he saw, that he finally resorted to naming them after the Greek god Proteus who could change into a myriad of different forms at will, or in Linnaeus’ words: “imo Protea ipso magnis variabili & differente“, meaning ‘like Proteus himself vastly variable and different.
The protea had been treated as a sometimes controversial national symbol in South Africa, both during and after apartheid. After the demise of apartheid, the ANC government decreed that South African sporting teams, previously called “Springboks” were to be known as the “Proteas”, although an exemption was made for the national rugby team, who remained “Springboks”. In apartheid times, the “Proteas” was the Cape Coloured representative team.
The heath-like ericoid growth form is by far the majority of plant species found in Fynbos. The leaves of the plants in this group are small and mostly hard and thin, with the edges rolled under to conceal the lower surface. The plants are mostly wispy and insubstantial, although some form quite dense bushes. . With one of two exceptions, the ericoids store their seeds in the soil. Of all the ericoids, the genus Erica dominates the Fynbos landscape. Of the 860 Erica species worldwide, 771 occur only in South Africa, more than 600 in the Cape Floral region, and close to 200 in the Biosphere Reserve alone. Other ericoid families include Daisy (Asteraceae) with 600 endemics, Blacktip (Bruniaceae), Pea (Fabaceae), Jujube (Rhamnaceae) and Thyme (Thymelaeaceae).
The final basic group is the bulbous herbs, or geophytes. Fynbos has the richest geophyte flora in the world, and also some of the most striking. More than 1400 bulb species occur among the fynbos, and included in the larger genera are the iridaceae such as Gladiolus and Watsonia, Liliaceae (with 54 Lachenalias!), Amaryllidaceae and Orchidaceae such as the Disas. Most geophytes appear in the wetter months and are less visible in the dry summer months when the leaves die back.