Imagine spending your life hiding under your bed waiting for the house to burn down. And when, after 20 or 30 years it eventually does, you miraculously emerge in clothes of dazzling colour. You cavort briefly, have as many offspring as conditions allow, and then return to the wreckage of your house, settling down for another decades-long wait.
Welcome to the life of the fynbos bulbs.
We call them bulbs because that’s the easiest term for them. The proper word is geophyte – ‘earth plant’ – and they are plants with, simply put, an underground energy storage unit: these include tubers, corms and rhizomes as well as bulbs.
Comprising 20% of fynbos plants, the geophytes belong to families you already know – Iris, Amaryllis, Hyacinth – and some that may not be so familiar – Hypoxidaceae (the Star Grasses) and Haemodoraceae (the Bloodroots). I run the risk of raising academic eyebrows with my inclusion of the Orchid family among the bulbs but the fynbos orchids grow from underground ball-shaped roots – indeed, not for nothing is the name ‘orchid’ derived from the Greek word for ‘testicle’.
The fynbos bulbs produce some of the most spectacular flowers in the world and can carpet swamps, coastal flats or rocky mountainsides in sheets of colour. Some are heartbreakingly rare – confined to a few remaining scraps of habitat – while others thrive in your garden: Arum Lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) and Red-hot Pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) for example.
Edible geophytes such as Watsonia and Gladiolus were fundamental to the survival of early Homo sapiens in the Cape and the use of fynbos bulbs as food continued to modern times. In fact, traditional Cape recipes still demand their inclusion – no Waterblommetjiebredie (‘water-lily stew’) is complete without a handful of lemony Oxalis pes-caprae – commonly called Sorrel (Oxalis family).
More examples of fynbos bulbs in our history unfolds as you page through the old books on the subject: the heavenly smell of a fruiting Amaryllis – the Kukumankranka (Gethyllis spp) – was used to perfume colonial linen cupboards; the tuberous root of Arctopus echinatus treated syphilis and epilepsy; and the leaves of the rhizome Agapanthus – now a worldwide garden plant – were employed as wound dressings.
But no matter their name, appearance or our use of them, the strategy is the same among all the geophytes: stay underground when times are tough; grow and flower when conditions are optimum. Some geophytes flower each year – usually out of the summer fire season – while others are prepared to wait until after a fire.
The evolution of geophytes and their abundance in fynbos is a consequence of the ferocious conditions of their environment: relentless sun and wind plus long arid summers and regular fire. It makes perfect sense to wait things out underground until conditions are more suitable, whether it’s the arrival of the winter rains or a freshly-cleared, post-fire landscape.
And remaining underground means geophytes are less vulnerable to surface-based predators and airborne diseases though there are plenty of soil pathogens and sharp-toothed mole rats to contend with as well as animals like baboons and porcupines which dig up and eat carbohydrate-rich geophytes.
So far so good. Now the hard part: seeing them. And identifying them.
It’s the ‘underground’ part that so bedevils their identification, especially since they can remain hidden for years or even decades. And when they do finally emerge – blinking in the sunlight – you are at first rewarded with little more than a pair of green androgynous leaves.
There’s little in the way of clues as to what they may be at this stage – though the leaves of some Amaryllis species – Haemanthus and Brunsvigia – can get longer than your arm. Ribbed leaves may be a Babiana Iris, stacked lime-green leaves most probably a Satyrium orchid … but then they bloom and it’s supernova time.
Now identification becomes easier though you may need to be quick: some bulbs produce a single flower and for only a few hours in the afternoon. Some bulbs flower en masse and are easy to find; others grow only in solitary little corners.
But whatever the flower’s extraordinary colour or exotic shape, it is not – as you know – for our visual benefit. The design of the flower, its colour, markings and scent (if it has one) all serve one purpose: to get noticed by its pollinator, whether a bird, insect or even mammal – it’s advertising, essentially – in the quest for fynbos pollination.
Be that as it may; it still gives us one of the most beautiful shows in nature.