The Cape Floristic Region is home to one of the richest floras in the world. Within an area of just 90 000 km2 there are over 9250 species of flowering plants, some 70% of which are restricted to the region. Fynbos is the major element of this region, contributing more than 80% of its species. It is a vegetation type that is dominated by shrubs and characterised by reed-like plants (the restioids). The name is derived from the original Dutch name “fijnbosch’ or fine bush. The region also includes renosterveld, karroid shrubland, thicket and forests. Fynbos is not only famous for its remarkable diversity, but also the beauty of many of its wildflowers. It is found at the southern tip of Africa in roughly a crescent shaped belt from Vanrhynsdorp in the north, southwards to the Cape Peninsula and eastwards to Port Elizabeth. Fynbos is largely restricted to the distribution of the parallel sandstone and quartzitic formations of the Cape Fold Mountains and the extensive areas of sand and limestone along the coast. Here it thrives on coarse-grained soils that are low in nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous. It is predominantly found in the winter rainfall region of the Cape, although there are areas in the Eastern Cape, where fynbos thrives, that are characterised by all year round rainfall. Travel from east to west or north to south through this region and you will be amazed by the diverse landscapes and remarkable changes in the flora you encounter over relatively short distances.
The main reason for the exceptional diversity in fynbos is not an unusually high concentration of species in a particular site, but rather the high proportion of turnover in species between sites. This is the result of the high rate at which species give way to each other across environmental and geographical gradients.
During my undergraduate studies I spent a great deal of time in the beautiful Cederberg Mountains undertaking research on the enigmatic Clanwilliam Cedar and getting to know the fynbos of these spectacular mountains. When I moved my focus of study to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve (where I spent some eighteen months of my Masters studies identifying plant species) I virtually had to start all over again, as there was hardly a plant species that I recognised from the Cederberg. In 1997 when I first moved to Grootbos, some 90 km to the east of Cape Point I was again thrown back by the remarkable change in species composition, despite the similarity of the environment and general look of the vegetation. Here were similar soils, climate and general environment and I was confident that my time at Cape Point would have prepared me well and that most of the fynbos species would be the same. I was in for a huge shock and once again had to virtually start from scratch, learning to identify the species of the Walker Bay region.
So what makes fynbos really special is its exceptionally high numbers of localised species, often restricted to a single, small area, sometimes less than 1 km2. During my time studying the flora of Grootbos we have identified no fewer than six new species for science, all of which are characterised by their localised distribution.
The diversity category of the blog will highlight this amazing floral and faunal biodiversity of the fynbos region.