The Western Cape is home to the smallest of the world's six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is characterised by fynbos and the protea family, and contains more plant species than the whole of Europe.
The kingdom is one of the Western Cape's two Unesco World Heritage Sites, places of "outstanding value to humanity". The other is Robben Island in Table Bay near Cape Town, used for centuries as a prison for dissidents and outcasts. Now an essential stop for visitors to the region, it was on this island that South African statesman Nelson Mandela spent the bulk of his 27 years in prison.
The Cape Floral Kingdom or Floristic Region is the smallest of the six such natural areas in the world, and is the only one contained within the borders of a single country. The others are the Boreal or Paleoarctic, Australasian, Neotropic, Paleotropic, and Antarctic. The Antarctic kingdom, although itself quite small, is nevertheless some 25 times as large. The CFK comprises less than 0.04% of the earth's land surface, yet harbors 3% or 4% of the world's species. All of tropical Africa contains some 30,000 plant species in almost 20 million square kilometres, which is only 3.5 times as many species in an area 235 times as large. The British Isles, at 3.5 times as large as the CFK, has only 1,500 species compared to the Cape's 8,600. And it is not merely its botanical diversity and richness that is significant. Almost 70% of its species are found nowhere else on earth. Unfortunately, almost three-quarters of all the species in South Africa's IUCN Red Data book of threatened or endangered species are currently growing in this Floral Kingdom, and this means that hundreds of species are facing extinction.
Many of the species presently inhabiting this region are threatened by extinction. Three-quarters of the plants listed in the latest edition of the South African Red Data Book are in the Cape Floral Kingdom. The coastal area has been subject to the multiple pressures of development, population growth, agriculture, plant collectors and the spread of invasive, alien plants. It is certainly a great pity that only a very small percentage of this area has received any form of protection, but soon after I was there in 1998, the Cape Peninsula National Park was established and now preserves a very significant expanse that stretches some 60 km from Cape Town all the way to the tip of the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape Floral Kingdom and the floristic biomes which it encompasses are a natural treasure for the people of South Africa and the world, and it is devoutly to be hoped that more areas will be set aside so that many of these endangered species will not be forever lost.
The name fynbos is Afrikaans for fine bush as opposed to timber forest, and refers to the fine, ericoid leaves and gracile habit of many fynbos species. The most conspicuous components of the flora are evergreensclerophyllous plants. Characteristic fynbos plant families include proteas, ericas, and restios. However, depending on the locality and the aspects under discussion, several other families have equal claim to being characteristic, including Rutaceae, Rhamnaceae, Fabaceae, Asteraceae, Geraniaceae, and Iridaceae.Proteas are represented by many species and are prominent in the landscape as one of the few large-leaf plant types, generally with large striking flowers which may be pollinated by birds. Ericas or heaths are generally smaller plants with many small, tubular flowers and needle-like leaves. The grass-like restios, only a few species of which are known outside the fynbos area, grow in wetter areas. More than 1400 bulb species occur among the fynbos, of which 96 are gladiolus and 54 lachenalias. Areas that consist mainly of "renosterbos", Elytropappusrhinocerotis, are known as Renosterveld (Afrikaans for "rhinoceros veldt").
Fire is a necessary stage in the lives of almost all fynbos plants, and is common during the dry summer months. Many of the seeds germinate only after the intense heat of a fire. In readiness for fire, most proteas retain their seeds on the bush for at least one year, a habit known as serotiny. They do this in structures which resemble the original flowerheads. In some species these structures are strikingly beautiful and long-lasting, which accounts for their use in dried floral arrangements. Around 30% of plants in the Fynbos produce seeds with an elaiosome which attract ants that carry the seeds into their burrows. In this way, the seeds are protected from fire. This relationship is an example of myrmecochory (the distribution of seeds by ants).
The fynbos area has been divided into two very similar ecoregions: the lowland fynbos (below 300m) on the sandy soil of the west coast, and the montanefynbos of the Cape Fold Belt.
The Lowland Fynbos and Renosterveld experiences regular winter rainfall, especially to the west of Cape Agulhas. The ecoregion has been subdivided into nine areas: the West Coast Forelands from the Cape Flats to the Olifants River (Western Cape); the Warm Bokkeveld basin around the town of Ceres; the Elgin Valley around the town of Elgin; the sandy Agulhas Plain on the coast; the Breede River valley around the town of Worcester; the South Coast Forelands from Caledon west to Mossel Bay; the south-eastern end of the Little Karoo; Langkloof valley; and the Southeastern Coast Forelands west from Tsitsikamma to Port Elizabeth.
The flora of the lowlands contains a high number of endemic species, and tends to favour larger plants than those growing on the hillier areas. They include the larger Restionaceae such as species of Elegia, Thamnochortus and Willdenowia and proteas such as King Protea (Proteacynaroides) and Blushing Bride (Serruriaflorida). Particular types of lowland fynbos include: the shrubs and herbs of the coastal sand dunes; the mixture of ericoids and restoids with thickets of shrubs such as Maytenus and other Celastraceae, sideroxylons and other Sapotaceae, and Rhus and other Anacardiaceae on the coastal sands; the classic fynbos of the sandplains of the West Coast Forelands, and the Agulhas Plain; the grassy fynbos of the hillier and wetter areas of the South and South-Eastern Coast Forelands; areas where fynbos and renosterveld are mixed; coastal renosterveld on the West and South Coast Forelands; and the inland renosterveld of the drier inland Little Karoo and Warm Bokkeveld.
The area is also home to a large number of endemic creatures that have adapted to life in this area, such as the monkey beetles which pollinate Ixia viridiflora. There are endemic species of fish in the five river systems in the area, too. Endemic reptiles include a number of tortoises and the chameleon-like Arum frog (Hyperoliushorstockii).
The MontaneFynbos and Renosterveld is the area above 300 m, a total of 45,000 km2 of the Cape Fold Mountains. The same level of floral variety, including all three characteristic fynbos families, is found there, but ericas predominate. Because the higher and wetter areas are more protected and contain important water sources, the original flora is more intact than in the lowlands; but agriculture and global warming are stll threats. The region includes: the mountains in the west from the Cape Peninsula to the Kouebokkeveld Mountains; the south coast hinterland from Elgin to Port Elizabeth; the mountains north of the Little Karoo from Laingsburg to Willowmore; and the inselberg hills within the Little Karoo. About half of these areas are originally fynbos, and about half are renosterveld.
Many different microclimates occur, so the flora changes from west to east, and also varies with altitude up the hillsides away from the coast and according to compass direction. Lower elevations are covered with proteafynbos, with ericas taking over further up. Plant species include pincushions (Leucospermum). The wildlife includes a number of endemic bees, beetles, horseflies and ants, and birds such as Cape Sugarbirds and the Orange-breasted Sunbird. Many of these birds and insects are important and specific pollinators for the fynbos, such as the Mountain Pride butterfly (Aeropetestulbaghia) which only visits red flowers such as Disauniflora and pollinates 15 different species. Larger animals include antelopes, particularly Cape Grysbok (Raphicerusmelanotis), Common Duiker (Sylvicapragrimmia), and Klipspringer (Oreotragusoreotragus). The extinct Blue antelope and quagga were also fynbos natives.