After hiking the Cape Peninsula for three decades, Fiona McIntosh thought she was pretty familiar with its famous flora. Until a guided walk through the fynbos with Dominic Chadbon, The Fynbos Guy…
Pictures: Shaen Adey
“This part of Table Mountain National Park burnt over 14 years ago, so it’s fynbos heaven,” explains Dominic Chadbon, aka The Fynbos Guy. “South Africa is the only country in the world to have an entire floral kingdom, the Cape Floral Kingdom, within its borders. Two-thirds of these 9 000 or so plants found here grow nowhere else in the world. Take this little beauty, the sticky green heath (Erica urna-viridis). Although it’s abundant here, you won’t see this highly localised erica outside the Silvermine mountains.”
I explain to my Italian friend Laura Leoncini as she studies the bell-shaped flowers that in Europe we call them heather. “I’m sure you saw magnificent displays of pink and purple heathers while you were driving around Scotland. The Pentland Hills, near my home city of Edinburgh, are cloaked with them in summer.” A recent immigrant to Cape Town, Laura is still trying to get to grips with fynbos.
“You Scots are very proud of your heathers,” says Dominic with a laugh. “But you actually only have four species, while we have at least 660 endemic species of erica.” Proud Scot that I am, I have to concede that the diversity we’re seeing here is nothing short of spectacular.
Our floral tour started at the Wolfkop gate in Silvermine East Nature Reserve, one of the hotspots of the Cape Floral Kingdom. There’s been so much to see that in the first hour we moved less than 200m from the car park.
“This was a moonscape after the fire,” Dominic tells us. “But fynbos needs to burn and has all sorts of clever adaptations that allow it to rise, like a phoenix, from the charred landscape. If you think about it, fire gets rid of all the old woody plants and leaves nicely prepared, fertilised earth in which seeds thrive.”
The floral diversity of the region is largely the result of the complex geology. Rocks that comprise the mountains of the Cape Peninsula are some of the oldest in the world, and the plants we’re looking at have been around since before the dinosaurs.
Dominic elaborates on an interesting paradox. “These wind-scoured, ancient mountains are a tough environment. The average wind speed at Cape Point, for example, is eight metres per second – and the soil contains virtually no nutrients, yet despite this the Cape Floral Region, which covers an area of more than 1 000km², is one of the most diverse plant kingdoms in the world.”
He points to a colourful sugarbush. “See that gorgeous Orange-breasted Sunbird? It’s one of only six bird species that you find in the fynbos.”
Fynbos is actually quite mean, he explains; with a lack of nutrients it supports few bugs, birds and animals, making sightings something of a treat I train my binoculars on a beautiful long-tailed Cape Sugarbird. Like the sunbird it has a long beak and tongue that allow it to extract nectar from protea.
I guess from his accent, and his jibe about the Scots, that Dominic is English. “What brought you here?” I ask. “Bird watching, actually. I moved from London to Botswana to work as a guide then continued south to the Western Cape. A bit of a problem for a guide as there were so few birds. But it didn’t take me long to realise that the solution was at my feet – plants, thousands of them, in flower at various times of the year and ranging from the common to the gaspingly rare, much like birds.”
And so he traded binoculars for a magnifying glass, and his journey into the bewildering but hugely rewarding fynbos began. Dominic is an inspiring guide. As we walk, we learn the key diagnostic features of the dominant fynbos families – the protea, erica, restios and bulbous geophites. But there is so much that we can’t identify. “If you can’t identify something offhand, good chance it’s a daisy,” says Dominic with a grin, as we continue our discussion over a late breakfast of coffee and chocolate croissants that he’s laid out on a rock.
“There are more than 1 000 daisy species in the fynbos – I call them crazy daisies. Some are widespread and easy to identify like the grey-leafed daisies or slangbos, and bitou, the common yellow daisy. But others don’t resemble daisies at all. Fynbos is a fascinating biome – you’ll also come across lots of plant specimens part of families that you’re familiar with. Members of the pea, carrot, mango, citrus and potato families are all found here in the fynbos. You might be able to identify some by smell.” He rubs some leaves and releases their aromatic scent. “Recognise this? Yup, it’s buchu, part of the citrus family.”
What’s great about walking in Silvermine is the variety of environments. We hike through vast patches of pinky-purple keurboom (Virgilia divaricata) and Septemberbos (Polygala myrtifolia), widespread along the watercourses of the reserve, and in flower in spring.
“Do you know this one?” Dominic asks our international visitor. Laura recoils, surprised to find that the little sundew in the wetland is sticky to the touch. “It’s a carnivorous plant,” he tells us. “It traps insects that then decompose and release nitrogen.”
Our fascinating tour takes us up through a mass of luminescent yellow conebushes (leucadendrons) and huge stands of button bushes (berzelias), another typical fynbos endemic. The common pagodas (mimetes) are in their fiery red colours and everywhere we look there are delicate flowering bulbs – yellow orchids, blue irises and even some early flowering orange- and salmon-coloured watsonias. Apparently the Peninsula has 25 per cent of all the ground orchids south of the Zambezi.
“Here’s another paradox,” I venture. “We make a huge fuss of the annual wildflower extravaganza on the West Coast and in Namaqualand but this display of fynbos species is superb. And we don’t even have to leave Cape Town to appreciate it.”
“Absolutely,” agrees Dominic. “About 60 per cent of fynbos flowers between August and November, but unlike the more famous floral hotspots that are drab outside the daisy season, you’ll find something blooming in the fynbos year round. These, rather than the conspicuous daisies, are the real treasures of the flora of the Cape.”
Take the tinderleaf or tontelblaar (Hermas villosa), in flower from December to May. Dominic tell us that the early inhabitants of the Cape would scrape the hairs off the leaves and, once dry, use the leaves in tinder boxes.
“Notice how restios dominate the windswept plateaus,” Dominic points out as we crest the mountain. “They are the ultimate fynbos survivors. The tougher the conditions, the more restios will dominate. Edible substances called elaiosomes are attached to their seeds, and when they fall the ants take them into their underground nests and eat the eliaosome as their reward. The seeds remain buried and protected from other predators and fire, after which they germinate.”
As we start to descend the western side of the peak we note the change. The vegetation is different to that on the eastern side, but again many of the plants have been utilised by man for centuries. “Look at this gonnabos (Passerina corymbosa). You can peel the bark off like this to make rope.” Dominic demonstrates.
The circular tour continues to surprise. Suddenly we leave the fynbos and plunge into the Spes Bona Forest, the cool shade provided by the canopy of yellowwoods and other indigenous trees, and the big green leaves of the April Fool’s lily (Haemanthus sanguineus) on the otherwise bare forest floor are a complete contrast to the exposed bushy fynbos.
As we head back to the car park, Dominic stops and plucks the long leaves of a Berg reed, which he weaves into a hat. “This is exactly what locals do with this reed,” he explains. We clap at his handiwork. The tour has opened my eyes. I will never be able to walk quickly through fynbos again.
The Fynbos Guy
- Dominic Chadbon, The Fynbos Guy, is a registered hiking and nature guide specialising in the birds and the botany of the Western Cape. He will tailor-make tours to suit individuals or groups. 072 992 5636, [email protected]
Did You Know?
- Only six bird species are found in the fynbos: Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Rockjumper, Victorin’s Warbler, Protea Canary.
- Sugarbushes (Protea nitida) were widely used by the Voortrekkers as brake shoes to help wagons go uphill, hence their moniker waboom. The trekkers would slip the ‘blocks’ under the wheels to prevent the wagon from rolling back. Huge bushes were also cut down and lashed to the back of their wagons to act as brakes or anchors on steep descents.