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Members of the genus Oxalis are very widely foundThe early Dutch settlers referred to the vegetation of the Cape Floral Kingdom collectively as "fijnbosch". this being modified to "fynbos" in more recent times. The name means "fine shrub" and refers to the many shrubs in the region that have finely branched, small-leafed forms which are adaptations to withstand dehydration during the warm, dry summer months. There are several other regions of the world with a similar climate and vegetation types but the latter are not nearly as rich in plant species as that found at Africa's southern tip.

If we look at the richness of the floral populations of the Cape Floral Kingdom and compare this wealth with populations in other parts of the world we find that the nearest competitor is the Amazon Basin with only one-third of the number of species. One can give even more startling comparisons. The Cape Peninsula, which covers about 470 kmē and lies to the south of Cape Town has 2 256 known species of flowering plants, whereas the whole of Britain and Ireland counts only 1 443 species. It is a floral assemblage second to none.

The fact that more than 5 580 species are present in the region is amazing in itself, but even more important is the high level of endemism. This applies not only to species: six entire families and nearly 200 genera (out of a total of 960) are found nowhere else in the world. Britain is home to four species of heather (genus Erica), whereas the Cape Floral Kingdom has at least 605 species. Another incredibly well-represented family is the Iridaceae with about 625 species, which includes such genera as Gladiolus, Dierama, Watsonia, Moraea, Babiana and Sparaxis. Probably the best known plants are the members of the family Proteaceae many of which have large and showy blooms. Of the 330 species of protea occurring in South Africa more than 90 percent are endemic to the Cape Floral Kingdom. This is only a small selection but it does emphasise the great importance of Africa's southern tip.

Another important point is that new species are discovered on a regular basis, mainly because of the difficulty of access to many of the rugged mountains, the tiny areas occupied by many species and the problems related to finding “a needle in a haystack". Added to these, of course, is the ongoing fragmentation of the natural vegetation by the actions of man. At its worst on the lowland plain and the fertile inter-montane valleys. Looked at in its broadest sense the Cape Floral Kingdom or fynbos can be separated into the following distinctive subgroups: Mountain Fynbos, Lowland Fynbos, Coastal Strandveld and Coastal Renosterveld. Many botanists hold the view that the strandveld and renosterveld fall outside the definition of "true" fynbos on the grounds that they have few plant species which are typical of this biome. However, as they form an integral part of the Cape Floral Kingdom they can hardly be left out. None of the types occurs in continuous, uninterrupted belts; instead they form complex mosaics.

More Information

Characteristic Plant Groups
Fire and Fynbos

Source: Africa - A Natural History by Chris & Tilde Stuart

  Article Date: 24 May 2004


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