The seventeenth century Dutch settlers might have looked at you a bit oddly had you mentioned to them at the time that their future depended on fynbos.
For them, fynbos was ‘fine bush’ – not a reference, perhaps, to the small needle-like leaves shared by so many fynbos plants but more a negative term. Fynbos was ‘fine’ in the sense of ‘thin’: there are no timber-bearing trees in fynbos and no grasses for grazing livestock. Very few fynbos plants produce berries, nuts and bulbs to eat and there’s virtually no animal life to trap or hunt.
But if Europe’s first colonialists cursed the frugal nature of fynbos, later arrivals saw things differently. In 1772, Anders Sparrman, a Swedish naturalist wrote breathlessly about finding new plant species at almost every step. The English naturalist William Burchell declared his astonishment at recording over 100 different plants during a stroll around Lion’s Head in Cape Town. Charles Darwin himself visited the Cape on his way back from his round-the-world voyage.
Slim and skinny it may be, but in fynbos, two botanical juggernaughts collide: outrageous numbers of individual plant species and textbook-defying rates of endemism – species that are found here and nowhere else.
The statistics are stupefying. Take the heathers – the Ericas, to give them their scientific name. Scotland proudly positions itself as Home of Heather; they have four different species. Europe has a total of twenty. Impressed? Don’t be: the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve has nearly forty Erica species and if you tramp around the mountains surrounding the unassuming town of Caledon in the Overberg, you’ll find some of the 235 different heathers that grow there. Several of them are only found there.
Such unique diversity has not however saved the fynbos from attack. Since the arrival of the Europeans, an insidious green cancer has spread across the mountains: alien trees – European pines, Australian wattles and eucalypts. Rid of their natural predators, they thrive in their new environment, smothering fynbos to create silent green deserts: no fynbos plant can grow in the scented, poisonous shade of a eucalypt forest.
The loss of bio-diversity is hard enough to bear but few people are moved by the extinction of a localised plant. However, the colonisation of the mountains by invasive trees carries a far greater cost.
Nearly 20% of South Africa’s water catchment areas lie in the Western Cape’s fynbos biome. In their natural state, the fynbos-covered mountains let up to 80% of their precipitation flow into the valleys below.
But cover the mountains with alien trees and only 30% of the rainfall may make it to our rivers and dams. Their thirst is insatiable: a big blue gum sucks up 200 litres of water a day. Alien trees also destroy our rivers, clogging them up and running them dry or tearing apart their banks with their roots.
In a world of rapidly warming temperatures and increasing demand for potable water, the sound of the chainsaw must ring out in the mountains of the Western Cape. Merciless deforestation programmes are needed, which create employment, teach skills and train leaders and even produce something to sell: firewood.
Fynbos has survived millennia; some of its plants were happily flowering at the time of the dinosaurs. Others evolved when South America and Australia were part of Africa. It now faces its greatest challenge. And at a time of shrinking reservoir levels and disappearing rivers, perhaps we do too. Our future has become entwined with that of the fynbos.