The Cape Floral Region – one of the world’s richest plant zones

Fynbos on Table Mountain. Photo courtesy flowcomm.

The Cape Floral Region is a World Heritage Site and one of the richest plant areas in the world, comprising less than 1% of the African continent, yet sustaining 20% of its flora!

In 2004 the Cape Floral Region – a protected area measuring 553 000ha – was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World heritage sites acknowledge and offer protection to areas of outstanding natural, historical and cultural value. South Africa boasts eight such sites.

The Table Mountain National Park itself is rich in floral biodiversity and forms part of the Cape Floristic Region World Heritage Site.

There are only six floral kingdoms in the world, of which fynbos is the smallest and the only one found entirely within a single country.

Fynbos, Dutch for “fine-leaved plants” or Afrikaans for “fine bush” describes the unique and beautiful floral species endemic to a small part of South Africa’s Western Cape Province.

Fynbos displays greater species diversity than that found in a tropical rainforest. There are 9000 species of fynbos found in the Cape area, 6200 of which are endemic and 2000 of which grow on Table Mountain. Many of these are under threat of extinction.

Proteas on Table Mountain. Photo courtesy Clifton Beard.

The protea, South Africa’s national flower, belongs to the fynbos family, as does rooibos, a plant valued for its herbal and medicinal properties. Rooibos tea is found on most restaurant menus in South Africa.

The Cape Floral Kingdom is one of the most bountiful regions for flora for its size in the world. Species per genus within the region number 9:1 and species per family number 52:1. The density of species is also one of the highest globally, as is the level of endemism, at 31.9%.

The kingdom is of critical value to scientists who are studying its unique plant reproductive strategies, plant adaptations to surviving fire, patterns of seed dispersal by insects, endemism patterns and adaptive radiation.

Although fynbos falls within a protected zone, visitors are welcome to walk amidst this natural vegetation in and around Cape Town, including the slopes and summit of Table Mountain at Cape Point.

Fynbos evolved over millennia and is highly endemic. Some species are only found in small pockets and nowhere else on Earth, which is why the Cape Floristic Region was declared a biodiversity hotspot, one of 18 across the globe.

The vegetation is dependent on fire to stimulate new growth in a 15-year cycle.

Fynbos plants are characterised by tough, leathery leaves and include proteas, ericas and seven plant families found nowhere else in the world. Most plants have small, thin (ericoid) leaves.

Ericas, or heaths, number 600 different species. Although the most striking feature of the fynbos is its numerous proteaceae (proteas), ericaceae (ericas) and restionaceae (reed family), the largest family in terms of species is asteraceae (daisies), with just fewer than 1000 species.

Fynbos is also populated by geophytes (bulbs) such as babiana, freesia, gladiolus, iris, moraea, sporaxis and watsonia.

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