Mountain Fynbos – Dense vegetation grows on the nutrient poor, moist, but very well drained mountain southern and eastern slopes that face the sea. The plants’ mass of roots form a peaty layer over shallow soils. Tannins in the roots give the rivers their dark brown colouring, while the saponins in the roots produce the typical patterns of white foam. On the northern and western slopes the fynbos is sparser and shorter with rocks showing among the plants whose grey-green or grey leaves are often hairy to preserve moisture.
The Protea family (Proteaceae), Heath family (Ericaceae), and Reed family of restios (Restionaceae) are the dominant plant families in fynbos. “Fynbos” means “small, fine leaved bushes” - only one strategy adopted by fynbos plants to conserve precious water. Other strategies are also used to survive hot, dry seasons.
Erica leaves are small and normally rolled under at the edges to prevent water loss. Protea leaves are often large and leathery protected by a waxy skin or hairs and Restio leaves have virtually disappeared. Their hard green stems have taken over the photosynthestic role.
Coastal fynbos – Coastal fynbos is uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions of wind and salt spray. It is being severely threatened by insensitive development along the coastal strip and should therefore be treasured and encouraged in coastal gardens and golf courses where little else grows successfully.
Rhenosterveld fynbos – Rhenosterveld skirts the base of both the coastal mountains and the Swartberge and is now severely depleted due to farming. Typically grey and very fine-leaved it contains many rare and beautiful bulbous species, succulents and many potentially valuable garden plants.
Many industries are based on fynbos – such as grazing for livestock, agriculture based on indigenous species, landscapes for tourism and movie locations, and medicines and other products made from indigenous plants. Direct revenue is also generated from the fynbos through harvesting (and cultivation) of indigenous rooibos tea, wildflowers like proteas, buchu for its aromatic oils, reeds for thatching, and various traditional and commercially marketed medicinal plants.
Natural resource economists estimated the total economic value of the fynbos region’s biodiversity – including plants animals, scenery, ecosystems and ecosystem services like water purification and erosion control – as over R10 billion per year in 2005, the equivalent of over 10% of the Western Cape province’s Gross Geographic Product at the time. Increasing pressure from human development is threatening this precious resource. A total of 1 736 fynbos plants are now critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.