So much more than just pretty blooms, fynbos is a pretty big deal, environmentally speaking. Did you know that South Africa’s Western Cape is more botanically diverse than the richest tropical rainforest in South America? That’s right. Even more diverse than the Amazon Rainforest! Let’s take a look at what makes fynbos so special, and what makes it a conservation priority.
Although technically the smallest of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms geographically speaking, the Cape Floral Kingdom is the only one wholly contained in a single country.
It is unique also because of its abundance of plant species (roughly 8700 species) and its significant endemicity, with 68% of fynbos species belonging exclusively to the Cape Floral Kingdom. This means that when compared to some of the other floras across the globe, the Cape Floral Kingdom outshines many tropical rainforest regions in terms of sheer diversity.
Additionally, in South Africa more than one-third of all our plant species are found only in the Cape Floral Kingdom, even though the Kingdom occupies less than 6% of our geography. Of the species found in the Cape Floral Kingdom, more than 7 000 are spread across five Fynbos vegetation types, along with roughly 1000 species that are categorised into three Renosterveld vegetation types. As a result, the remaining species fall under the Succulent, Nama Karoo, Thicket and Forest vegetation types, but their contribution to diversity in the region is comparatively minor.
What is fynbos?
Fynbos (which means “fine-leaved plants”) is an extraordinary type of vegetation that occurs solely on the southern tip of Africa. It includes a very wide range of plant species, particularly small heather-like trees and shrubs. It grows only in a 200 kilometre stretch of coast that runs from from Clanwilliam on the west coast to Port Elizabeth on the southeast coast. Much of the fynbos is under threat of extinction, more than 1 700 species are in danger of disappearing from the face of the Earth, which is why the fynbos biome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with nature reserves heavily focused on conservation.
Facts about fynbos
- Our national flower is a type of fynbos: Fynbos includes proteas (yes, that’s where the inspiration came for our national flower and cricket team – which makes proteas close to every South African’s heart), as well as ericas, restios, and geophytes, daisies, legumes and vygies.
- Buchu and rooibos are the most popular types of fynbos: Both of which have many health and medicinal uses. Buchu is used in many traditional medicines for treating inflammation and infection, while rooibos is brewed as tea, in addition to being used for skin care thanks to high antioxidant content.
- Fynbos has many practical uses: an abundance of tall, rigid reeds known as Restios were once used by the Khoisan to make portable shelters, and was later used for thatching in Cape Dutch houses, and continues to be used today.
- Fynbos also plays a vital role in the water cycle: some of the wettest places in Africa being wild, moisture-rich mountain tops populated by rare proteas and because their water needs are low, fynbos allows up to 80% of the rainwater to run off and fill our rivers and reservoirs, which means that one in five glasses of water that makes its way into our drinking water system got there because of fynbos.
- Fire plays a fascinating role in sustainability of fynbos species: most fynbos plants need to burn between between six and 45 years of age. Fynbos fruit is stored in fire-safe cones, and their release is stimulated by fire. While many species spread their seed through insects and animals, the majority will only regenerate after fire. Without fire, fynbos weakens and is easily replaced by invasive forest and thicket plants.
Why is conservation of fynbos important?
Roughly three quarters of our threatened plant species live only in the Fynbos Biome, which means that those who work with fynbos or live in its proximity, have a deep responsibility for stewardship and conservation of these endangered plants.
In the Fynbos Biome:
- plant species are on the verge of extinction, with 1745 of these found exclusively in the fynbos biome.
- 3296 plant species are of conservation concern – 3151 of these are endemic.
What is fynbos threatened by?
Extinction is a very real possibility thanks to the destruction of natural fynbos habitat due to urban, agricultural and industrial development; as well as the spread of invasive alien plants. This situation is compounded by unsuitable agricultural practices, unsustainable picking and fires that occur too frequently.
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