The Cape Floral Kingdom
Imagine a group of plants that achieves the seemingly impossible:
- grows in sandy, poor soil that even farmers shun
- survives windy, hot, dry summers with low water consumption
- provides a spectacular variety of beautiful flowers all year round, to the point that it is
- the smallest and, for its size, richest of the world's six floral kingdoms.
You would be imagining fynbos(pronounced fain-bos, with fain as in faint, and bo as in borehole), the natural vegetation growing in the mediterranean climate of the South Western Cape of South Africa, along a narrow belt which stretches north and east of Cape Town.
Most famous for its proteas, this small area is home to over 8000 species of plants, comprising five diverse growth forms in various proportions:
- tall Protea shrubs with large leaves (330 species),
- 3000 species of heath-like shrubs (Ericoids), of which 600 are Erica species. There are only 26 erica species in the rest of the world, and only 4 in the land known for its ericas (heaths) - Scotland.
- 310 species of reed-like plants (Restiods),
- 1400 species of bulbous herb, and
- 1000 daisy species (responsible for the spectacular spring flower shows in Namaqualand).
An astonishing 5000 of these species do not occur anywhere else in the world and many are extremely rare and in danger of extinction.
Visitors to the fynbos cannot help but remark on the huge variety of different species living close together. Compared to the next most concentrated floral kingdom, the South American Rainforest (which has a concentration of 400 species per 10 sq.km), the fynbos biome has a concentration of 1300 species per 10 sq.km. In real-world terms, this means that the Cape Peninsula is home to 2256 different plant species - more than the entire British Isles, an area 5000 times larger.
Not surprisingly, many popular garden varieties had their origins in fynbos. Pelargoniums (geraniums). freesias and ixias were brought to Europe by early visitors to Cape Town. Many other spectacular flowers have been slower to gain acceptance because they have a reputation of being hard to grow.
The truth is that many gardeners, accustomed to the amount of fertilizer, water and attention they need to pay to less hardy plants, end up killing fynbos with over-watering and over-feeding. Once you understand where fynbos comes from you can grow it easily and effortlessly:
- The soil in the fynbos biome has low nutrient levels. Fynbos plants have adapted by growing very fine roots near the surface to absorb nutrients. If you feed the plants with chemical fertilizer or animal compost the high levels of phosphates in the fertilizer burns these fine roots and the plant dies. You can damage these fine roots by tilling the soil or weeding around the plants. Rather put a mulch of pine-bark chips around your fynbos plants and then ignore them (no feeding, no tilling, no weeding).
- The climate is wet in winter and dry in summer. This means there is very little opportunity for fungi to grow (fungal spores prefer warm and moist conditions), and as a result the plants are not used to fungal attack. The most popular way for gardeners to kill their fynbos is when they feel sorry for the plants in the heat of summer and give them a good watering in the afternoon of a hot day. The only time to water your fynbos plants is in the early morning while it is cool. Obviously, young plants do need water in summer (in the wild they get it from mist or cloud on the mountain tops) - and you should give them a deep watering every other day until they are two or three years old.
- Fynbos grows in well-drained, sandy soil. If you have clay or other non-porous substrates, and your garden does not drain well, many fynbos plants will die (especially proteas and bulbs). In gardens that don't drain well, focus on growing restios (reeds) and ericas (heaths). Swamps and wetlands in the fynbos biome can be identified by the high concentrations of restios growing in them.
- Fynbos seeds germinate when the rainy season starts, to ensure that they are strong enough to survive the next summer. The seeds wait for cold (below 5 degrees C) and moisture before germinating. Many seeds avoid germinating when they are likely to be in the shade of established fynbos. So they wait for a fire to burn everything flat. When the day/night temperature difference is big from direct sun on blackened burnt earth and nights are cold from a lack of vegetation, and then the first rain is full of smoke, the seeds germinate. You can simulate these conditions by soaking your seeds in Smoke Primer and putting them in the refridgerator overnight
About the Author
Charles Oertel farms with fynbos near Cape Town. He provides fynbos seed starter packs complete with instructions and Smoke Primer over the internet at finebushpeople.co.za and supplies stock to customers in the US via Seedman.com.