What is Fynbos?

  Zoe Poulsen     2023-05-28

Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen, edits and photos by Caitlin von Witt, and photos by James Puttick

 At the southwestern tip of the African continent is the Fynbos Biome. At its heart is the Cape Peninsula in the City of Cape Town, which is rated as one of the world’s most biodiverse cities.

In this edition of the habiCHAT blog, we take a closer look at why South Africa’s Fynbos Biome is so special. We delve into fynbos ecosystems, shining a light on Cape Town’s urban biodiversity and what we can do to conserve it.

Mediterranean-type shrublands at the tip of Africa

Above: The spectacular whorled heath (𝘌𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘢 𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘢) is listed as ‘Extinct in the Wild’ on the Red List of South African Plants. Photo: James Puttick.

With trees at the forefront of the world’s conservation conversations, much of the focus has been on forests. But many of the world’s largely treeless ecosystems, including grasslands and shrublands, are among some of the world’s most biodiverse habitats.

Encompassing most of the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa’s Fynbos Biome includes some of the most species-rich mediterranean-type shrublands.

A substantial proportion of the Fynbos Biome is within South Africa’s winter rainfall zone, meaning that it has wet winters with cold fronts moving in from the Atlantic to the west and hot dry summers with little rain.

Cape Town: The fynbos city

Above: Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos in the foreground, with the loss of natural vegetation to coastal urbanisation shown in the distance. Photo: Caitlin von Witt.

Overshadowed by the iconic Table Mountain, the city of Cape Town radiates outwards from the City Bowl along the rugged slopes of the Cape Peninsula mountains, and outwards across the similarly biodiverse Cape Flats.

Most of these mountains and lowlands are home to true fynbos vegetation, along with smaller areas of renosterveld and strandveld on the lowlands, and small patches of afrotemperate and coastal forest in fire-protected kloofs.

Along with true fynbos, renosterveld and strandveld, including coastal thicket, form part of the Fynbos Biome and can therefore be considered ‘fynbos’ in the broad sense of the word. Afrotemperate forest is distinct and falls in the Southern Afrotemperate Forest Biome.

The Cape Peninsula alone is home to a total of 2 285 plant species, meaning that it has the highest number of plant species per unit area in the Cape Floristic Region. Around 7% of these plant species are endemic to the area, meaning that they grow naturally nowhere else on Earth.

Fynbos vs strandveld vs renosterveld

Above: Example of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld vegetation at Zandvlei Nature Reserve. Photo: James Puttick.

So how can we tell these vegetation types, also known as ‘veld types’, apart? How are they different? True fynbos vegetation is a temperate shrubland that is fire-prone and fire-dependent, with fires moving through the landscape, on average, every 12–15 years.

True fynbos vegetation is characterised by the presence of the protea family, restio family and erica family. Buchus that come from the Rutaceae, known as the citrus family, are also relatively common.

Renosterveld supposedly gets its name from the black rhino that historically used to roam these habitats. With their grey hide hidden in the equally grey renosterbos, also known as ‘rhino bush’ or 𝘋𝘪𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘮𝘯𝘶𝘴 𝘳𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘰𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘰𝘵𝘪𝘴, they were highly camouflaged as they moved through the veld.

But renosterveld is not just renosterbos…it is one of the world’s richest bulb habitats, which come into bloom during spring in a plethora of colours. In contrast to fynbos, it is dominated by shrubs from the Asteraceae family.

We are only just starting to understand the complexity of renosterveld ecology and particularly that of its pollinators. Sadly, much will remain unknown, since most of South Africa’s renosterveld has been lost to ploughing for agriculture, and urban development.

You can experience the biodiversity of Cape Town’s Peninsula Shale Renosterveld on the slopes of Signal Hill above the City Bowl and on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak where it still survives. Like fynbos, renosterveld vegetation is both fire-prone and fire-dependent.

Strandveld vegetation is found close to the sea, in and around vleis on the Cape Flats and along the rocky shores and dunes of the Cape Peninsula.

Here, it grows on mineral-rich sands, that are high in calcium, as well as on limestone outcrops. When translated from Afrikaans, its name means ‘beach vegetation’, being indicative of its main area of occurrence.

Strandveld vegetation is dominated by broad-leaved shrubs that usually form a low, wind-clipped, closely-knit structure. In areas that are more sheltered from the wind where there are seeps near the coastline, they are then replaced by coastal forest which is dominated by milkwood trees (𝘚𝘪𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘰𝘹𝘺𝘭𝘰𝘯 𝘪𝘯𝘦𝘳𝘮𝘦).

 Although strandveld has relatively high vegetation cover, because of the high succulent component of the vegetation, it seldom burns, with fire return intervals thought to be around 50–100 years.

Biodiverse, yet threatened

Above: The Critically Endangered Cape Flats conebush (𝘓𝘦𝘶𝘤𝘢𝘥𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘳𝘰𝘯 𝘭𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘴𝘢𝘯𝘶𝘴) typically found in Cape Flats Sand Fynbos. Photo: James Puttick.

The Greater Cape Town area is the largest city in South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region (CFR), which is recognised as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots both for its extraordinary biodiversity and the level of threat that faces its imperilled ecosystems.

The CFR is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which places it at the same level of international conservation importance as the Grand Canyon, the Galapagos Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef.

However, despite a large area of the City of Cape Town falling within the iconic Table Mountain National Park (managed by SANParks) and a network of lowland nature reserves (managed by the City), Cape Town faces one of the highest rates of species extinctions, second only to that of Hawaii.

There are many vegetation types that are only found within the City of Cape Town, that is, they are endemic to Cape Town. One of the most famous of these is Peninsula Sandstone Fynbos, which is only found on the mid to upper mountain slopes of Table Mountain National Park.

Many of Cape Town’s endemic vegetation types are highly threatened. There is rampant habitat loss from urban expansion; alien plant invasions including pernicious species such as the port jackson (𝘈𝘤𝘢𝘤𝘪𝘢 𝘴𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘨𝘯𝘢), and fire frequencies that are either too high or too low.

The Critically Endangered Cape Flats Sand Fynbos is one of the most threatened of these, with 85% of its former extent having been lost to date.

Found on the lower mountain slopes on granite-derived soils adjacent to the Cape Flats, Peninsula Granite Fynbos has recently had its threat status elevated to Critically Endangered.

This is due to ongoing threats from habitat loss driven by alien plant invasions, agriculture, and expansion of afrotemperate forest species into the vegetation from a long-term absence of fire.

Lourensford Alluvium Fynbos occurs where the mountains meet the lowlands, and screes and sandy silts have been deposited in alluvial fans.

More than 91% of this vegetation has been lost from urban expansion, with most of the remainder conserved at Harmony Flats Nature Reserve between Strand and Gordon’s Bay (managed by the City).

Cape Flats Dune Strandveld is another vegetation type that is endemic to the City of Cape Town, meaning that it is found nowhere else worldwide. More than half of its former extent has been transformed to date, and it is nationally classified as Endangered.

Cape Town: The wetland city

Above: 𝘌𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘪𝘢 𝘵𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘶𝘮, an example of a restio, which is a typical component of true fynbos. Photo: James Puttick.

In 2022, Cape Town became the first city to be accredited as a Ramsar Wetland City, highlighting the efforts that have been made in recognising the importance of protecting the city’s 11 000 ha of wetlands.

The main wetland systems in the City of Cape Town include Rietvlei and the Milnerton Lagoon (that form part of the Table Bay Nature Reserve), the Edith Stephens Wetlands, the False Bay Nature Reserve and the Noordhoek Wetlands, among others. These wetland systems either form part of true fynbos, renosterveld or strandveld vegetation types, or a distinct, Critically Endangered vegetation type, Cape Lowland Freshwater Wetland.

In addition to being home to wetland birds such as flamingos and pelicans, mammals such as otters, and the Endangered western leopard toad, there are many special plant species that are found in Cape Town’s internationally important wetlands.

Perhaps one of the most iconic of these is the whorled heath (𝘌𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘢 𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘭𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘢), which was brought to extinction in the wild through urban expansion, wetland drainage and cut flower harvesting.

Thanks to the efforts of botanists and horticulturalists at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, material for the conservation of this species was sourced from botanical gardens around South Africa and worldwide.

Building on this vital and forward-looking conservation initiative, the whorled heath has now been reintroduced to a range of protected areas within its former range with promising results.

Conserving our biodiverse community spaces together

Above: Hopliine beetle 𝘖𝘮𝘰𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘴 sp. visiting the annual daisy 𝘍𝘦𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘪𝘢 𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘦𝘭𝘭𝘢 in renosterveld vegetation. Photo: Caitlin von Witt.

With so little of Cape Town’s highly biodiverse vegetation remaining, it is vital that we join hands to conserve what is left. By working together to strategically implement ecological restoration initiatives in suitable areas, we will expand our ecosystem conservation footprint.

This work can be done most effectively when it is driven from within our communities, with community conservation initiatives working towards conserving the biodiversity on our doorsteps. FynbosLIFE prides itself in playing an integral role in facilitating such community projects.

Our Veld Circle Project specifically showcases plant communities from Cape Town’s different vegetation types in situ. This year we will be installing a Cape Flats Sand Fynbos Circle, which will be the fifth of these educational and recreational rehabilitation sites in Cape Town.

If you would like to get involved, follow us on our social media platforms for updates on how and when you can volunteer to support biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration in your area.

Further reading

Brown, C. Magoba, R. (Eds) (2009) Rivers and Wetlands of Cape Town, Water Research Commission, Report No. TT 376/08.

Esler, K.J. Pierce, S.M. de Villiers, C. (2014) Fynbos Ecology and Management, Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa.

Manning, J. (2007) Field Guide to Fynbos, Struik Nature, Cape Town, South Africa.

Mucina, L. Rutherford, M.C. (2006) The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland, Strelitzia 19, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.