During the first week of March 2015 a massive fire burnt across the southern Cape Peninsula. An area of about 5,000 hectares was burnt stretching from the slopes of Muizenberg on the Indian Ocean side of the Peninsula across and down to the Atlantic coastline on the Hout Bay side. Immediately following the fire the previously green slopes, with there magnificent variety of fynbos species, had been transformed into a blackened, ash covered lunar-like landscape. A walk through these desolate hills immediately after the fire gave no indication of what was to follow. Death and destruction was everywhere, and all that remained were blackened stems, ash and not a vestige of green anywhere. But within days this seemingly lifeless landscape started to transform itself back into a botanical wonderland.
Just six weeks later and a walk through this same burnt landscape reveals the many remarkable ways that fynbos is adapted to survive and regrow after fire.
The photo on the left is of Protea nitida (Wagon tree, Waboom). Initially these plants would have appeared blackened and dead, yet they have a special thick, corky white-grey bark that protects them from fire. Just six weeks after fire and these amazing plants have produced new leaves and will be fully recovered and flowering by next year.
Other plants such as Penaeae mucronata (see left) are able to re-sprout after fire from woody underground lignotubers. A lignotuber is a woody swelling of the root crown used by some plants as protection against fire. While the above ground parts of the plant are destroyed in the fire, the plant is not killed. Instead the crown contains buds from which new stems rapidly sprout.
These re-sprouting plants have a major advantage after fire in comparison with plants that rely entirely on seeds for germination. A great example of a rapid re-sprouter is Erica cerinthoides (Fire heath). Just six weeks after the Cape Peninsula fire and this amazing Erica has resprouted and produced its magnificent red, bird pollinated flowers.
Behind the Erica the large green leaf is a Watsonia. This leaf has grown from a bulb in just six weeks. Bulbs provides a store of food that can rapidly be used by the plant for growth and flowering after fire. The bulb has been protected from fire by the insulating effects of the soil above. The post fire environment is ideal for bulbs. Fires return essential nutrients back to the soil in the ash and shrubs, that previously competed with the bulb for light and space, have been burnt. The bulbs rapidly take advantage, pushing up fresh, healthy foliage and flowering in the first winter and spring following fire.
For many other species this winter will provide the rainfall for the germination of their seeds that they have carefully stored in preparation for fire. Ecologists call plants that store their seeds in special protected cones or fruiting bodies in the canopy serotinous plants. While the parent plant dies in the fire, the precious seeds are safeguarded and released a few days later into the moon-like landscape. When cooler autumn days and rains arrive these seeds germinate.
What really caught my eye while driving over the mountains this last weekend was the bright yellow patches in amongst the grey landscape. On closer inspection I found them to be these beautiful Capelio tabularis (Mountain daisy) that flourish in the first season following fire – I cant wait for my next visit in a few weeks to see what’s flowering!