Table Mountain flora – Part 2: What exactly is fynbos?

Jul 24, 2012

A restio tussock

Most hikes on Table Mountain leads across slopes of fynbos (pronounced fain-bos), the characteristic shrubland of Table Mountain. Fynbos is a generic name for the shrubby vegetation of the Cape Floristic Region. It’s actually an Afrikaans word derived from the Dutch term fijn bosch, which translates to ‘fine bush’. Two explanations exist for its origin: firstly, that it makes reference to the fine, slender shape of many fynbos species; and secondly, that the Dutch referred to the Cape’s shrubs as being too fine and flimsy to use as timber.

So fynbos can be defined as the indigenous shrubs occurring in the Cape Floristic Region – the 100- to 200-kilometer-wide coastal belt stretching around the southwest corner of South Africa – comprising more than 8500 species, 69% of which are endemic (found nowhere else on the planet). Of all the plant species in the area, 80% are fynbos. The other vegetation types include Strandveld (soft, coastal shrubs found on tertiary sands), Renosterveld (grassy shrubland found on shaly soils) and Afro-montane forest (referring to their occurrence in Africa and typically on mountains). On Table Mountain, fynbos is the dominant vegetation type, followed by Afro-montane forest (mostly on the east and south side) and then Renosterveld (Signal Hill, and northern slopes of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak). Pockets of Strandveld can be found along the coast below the Twelve Apostles, though strictly not part of Table Mountain.

Many well-known plant families occur within the fynbos biome and are well represented by a variety of species. Examples include the Daisy, Iris, Orchid, Sage, Pea, Carrot (like the notorious Blister Bush), Geranium and Citrus families. More than 70 Disa species (a genus / sub-class of Orchids) occur on the Cape Peninsula, with some species restricted to a single slope. Early winter sees some slopes ablaze with the yellow-flowered Common Rosinbush, a specie of the Daisy Family. Many species of Agathosma, a genus of the Citrus family, occur on Table Mountain. Colloquially known as ‘buchu’, many species contain fragrant and pungent oils that do a good job in deodorizing a sweaty hiker. One specie, the medicinal Agathosma betulina, is commercially available as a herbal tea.

Fynbos can roughly be divided into four plant groups or growth forms: proteas (tall shrubs with broad leaves, ericas (smaller, heath-like shrubs, often with slender leaves), restios (reed-like plants) and geophytes (bulbous, soft-stemmed plants). Restios are the defining plants of fynbos, as they occur in all the fynbos habitats. The 1400-odd geophytes species in the Cape Floristic Kingdom flower mostly in winter and spring, and also after fire. On most Table Mountain hikes, species representing each of the four groups are encountered. And they all flower at different times of the year, so never will you hike on Table Mountain without coming across at least one flowering specie.