Tour the Cape and experience the unique Cape Floral Kingdom

The smell of Africa

When I was a child my parents would drive from our home in the then Transkei to Cape Town at least once a year, most often during December. This was usually a three day journey. On day three of the trip to Cape Town a heady scent would come into the car carried on the breeze coming in the windows which were open for the heat.

When I asked my parents about the scent my mother would say, “That is the smell of Africa.” Much later I would discover that it was in fact the scent of the unique vegetation known as fynbos (fine bush, from the Dutch fijn bosch). Fynbos, pronounced “fayn bos”, is a biome unique to the southern and south western parts of the Western Province of South Africa and comprises a number of distinct plant types, in fact the richest diversity of plants anywhere in the world.

The fynbos biome is one of several vegetation types making up the Cape Floral Kingdom, which in turn is one of six designated Floral Kingdoms in the world, the other five being the Australian, covering 8% of the world's land area; the Boreal, covering 42% of the world's land area; the Paleotropic in Central Africa, covering 35% of gthe world's land area; the Neotropical in Latin America, covering 14% of the world's land area; and the Holantarctic at the tip of Latin America, covering 1% of the world's land area. The Cape Floral Kingdom covers 0.04% of the world's land area.

A Floral Kingdom is defined as “A major geographical grouping of plants, especially flowering plants, identified on the basis of floristic distinctiveness, particularly with regard to the degree of endemism at family and generic level. Some authorities distinguish between kingdoms or realms, which are accorded the highest status, and provinces, which have lesser status and go to make up the kingdoms.” (MICHAEL ALLABY. "floral province." A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. 1998. Retrieved August 05, 2010 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O7-floralprovince.html)

An iconic fynbos flower - the Disa. Image from Arthur Vine Hall's "Table Mountain" (Juta, c 1897)
An iconic fynbos flower - the Disa. Image from Arthur Vine Hall's "Table Mountain" (Juta, c 1897)

The amazing wealth of the Cape Floral Kingdom

Imagine an area smaller than London, UK, which has almost double the number of plant species as the whole of the UK, and then you will get some idea of the incredible variety of the plant life on the Cape Peninsula in the Western Cape Province of South Africa.

That iconic feature of Cape Town, Table Mountain, which has an area of around 57 square kilometres, is home to nearly 1500 species, the same number of species as call the whole United Kingdom home. A tour of the mountain is therefore a must for anyone who loves plants.

An English naturalist, whose name features prominently in South African botany and zoology, William Burchell (1781 - 1863), while on a short walk around Lion's Head, found 105 species of plants.

The wealth of the Cape Floral Kingdom (this name was coined by the prominent botanist Dr Rudolf Marloth) was so impressive that the director of Kew Gardens, Sir William Hooker, proposed the creation of a post of Colonial Botanist. Dr Ludwig Pappe (1803 – 1862) was the first person to hold this position. He was at the same time Professor of Botany at the then South African College, now called the University of Cape Town.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Protea repens - the "Sugarbush" or "Suikerbossie" Protea. Photo by Colin Paterson-Jones from the book "Fynbos" by Richard Cowling and Dave Rishardson, Fernwood Press, 1995.The blue Disa. From Arthur Vine Hall, Table Mountain.Orange breated sunbird. From Kenneth Newman's "Birds of Southern Africa", SAPPI, 2007Watsonia pyrimidata. By Liz McMahon, from "A Fynbos Year", David Philip, 1988.A view of the National Botanical Garden Kirstenbosch, where much research into the fynbos vegetation is done.
Protea repens - the "Sugarbush" or "Suikerbossie" Protea. Photo by Colin Paterson-Jones from the book "Fynbos" by Richard Cowling and Dave Rishardson, Fernwood Press, 1995.
Protea repens - the "Sugarbush" or "Suikerbossie" Protea. Photo by Colin Paterson-Jones from the book "Fynbos" by Richard Cowling and Dave Rishardson, Fernwood Press, 1995.
The blue Disa. From Arthur Vine Hall, Table Mountain.
The blue Disa. From Arthur Vine Hall, Table Mountain.
Orange breated sunbird. From Kenneth Newman's "Birds of Southern Africa", SAPPI, 2007
Orange breated sunbird. From Kenneth Newman's "Birds of Southern Africa", SAPPI, 2007
Watsonia pyrimidata. By Liz McMahon, from "A Fynbos Year", David Philip, 1988.
Watsonia pyrimidata. By Liz McMahon, from "A Fynbos Year", David Philip, 1988.
A view of the National Botanical Garden Kirstenbosch, where much research into the fynbos vegetation is done.
A view of the National Botanical Garden Kirstenbosch, where much research into the fynbos vegetation is done.

Some of the characteristic flowers

The variety, sheer exuberant abundance and beauty of the flora of the fynbos biome, is perhaps best characterised by these four flowers: the Proteas (Proteaceae); the Disa; the Erica (Ericaceae); and the Watsonia (Iridaceae).

Proteas are widely dispersed in the fynbos biome, giving its name to a particular type of fynbos, the Proteoid fynbos. This fynbos type is bushy and very colourful in winter when the proteas are blooming. This type of fynbos is found most commonly at the bases of mountains, and can be seen in the Robinson's Pass in the western part of the Outeniqua Mountains in the Garden Route area, as well as on coastal plains.

The protea is the national flower of South Africa. For some 200 years the most popular, and therefore unofficial, national flower was Protea repens, also known as the “sugar bush”, but in 1976 Protea cynaroides (the “King” protea) was gazetted as the national flower. P. repens still has a major part in South African history and culture. It was the source of both sweetener and chest remedy for centuries as farmers would extract the generous nectar from the flower, boil it down into a syrup. It is also the subject of a perennially popular song in South Africa, “Suikerbos, ek wil jou hê”, (Sugarbush, I want you so), composed by Cape Town bandleader Fred Michel while picnicking on Lion's Head in Cape Town.

The Disa is a geophyte (bulbous plant) and is relatively little seen, compared with the Proteas and Ericas. It has generally a delicate, beautiful flower, most commonly red or blue. It is found in sheltered mountain gorges. There are altogether some 53 species of this orchid.

The fynbos Ericas or heaths are incredibly diverse. More Ericas occur in the Western Cape fynbos biome than anywhere else in the world, in fact, in the rest of the world together. There are more than 670 species in this area, 650 of them endemic. To put this richness into perspective, there are 14 species in Europe, nine in Malawi and north east Africa, and two in north Africa.

Some 60 Erica species are bird-pollinated, with only one bird species being morphologically adapted to perform this function, the orange breasted sunbird. Pollination mechanisms are what have led to the different flowers found on Ericas. Wind-pollinated Ericas have relatively small flowers, while insect-pollinated Ericas have larger and more colourful flowers.

Watsonias provide for some of the most beautiful displays, especially after fires, blanketing whole hillsides in brilliant colour. Watsonias belong to the Iridaceae geophytes. Some Watsonias with red tubular flowers are like the aforementioned Ericas, bird-pollinated.

Watsonias provide some of the best floral displays at the sides of roads in the Garden Route, making a reality of the name.

Fynbos flowers that have become household favourites

Given the incredible wealth and diversity of the fynbos biome it was perhaps inevitable that the flowers which grew in it would become favourites with gardeners all over the world. Here is a picture gallery of some of these.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Gladiolus brevifolius. Painting by Liz McMahon, From "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael FraserThe Nerine. From Arthur Vine Hall: "Table Mountain"Pelargonium cucullatum by Liz McMahon. From "A Fynbos Year by Liz McMahon and Michael FraserAgapanthus. Photo by Tony McGregorPelargonium zonale. Photo by Tony McGregor
Gladiolus brevifolius. Painting by Liz McMahon, From "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
Gladiolus brevifolius. Painting by Liz McMahon, From "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
The Nerine. From Arthur Vine Hall: "Table Mountain"
The Nerine. From Arthur Vine Hall: "Table Mountain"
Pelargonium cucullatum by Liz McMahon. From "A Fynbos Year by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
Pelargonium cucullatum by Liz McMahon. From "A Fynbos Year by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
Agapanthus. Photo by Tony McGregor
Agapanthus. Photo by Tony McGregor
Pelargonium zonale. Photo by Tony McGregor
Pelargonium zonale. Photo by Tony McGregor
Map of the fynbos area. By Liz McMahon. From "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
Map of the fynbos area. By Liz McMahon. From "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
A typical coastal fynbos landscape on the road from Gordon's Bay to Betty's Bay on the Cape south coast. Photo by Tony McGregor
A typical coastal fynbos landscape on the road from Gordon's Bay to Betty's Bay on the Cape south coast. Photo by Tony McGregor

Fynbos and eco-tourism

Eco-tourism is a growing industry in South Africa. Most visitors who are attracted come for the spectacular game viewing in the many wonderful game reserves in the country. A look at the beauty of the fynbos biome would be very rewarding for any visitor with an eye for the natural world.

The Cape Floral Kingdom stretches from Nieuwoudville in the north west of the Western Cape through Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula to just west of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province.

In between are scenes of spectacular beauty, and of course, on a hot summer's day, of the "smell of Africa."


Cover of "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser
Cover of "A Fynbos Year" by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser

"A Fynbos Year" - a plea for conservation

One of the most attractive books on nature in South Africa is the wonderful, entertaining and informative A Fynbos Year by Liz McMahon and Michael Fraser (David Philip, 1988). I think it is now out of print but for a collector of beautiful books, or for a lover of flowers, this book is a lovely one to have.

The writers are both origianlly from Scotland and spent time in South Africa from 1984 on, Fraser at the University of Cape Town's Percy Fitzpateick Institute of African Ornithology.

They write in the preface to the book:

A Fynbos Year is, therfore, a general account of fynbos illustrated with chracteristic plants and animals as we found them between February 1987 and January 1988. As such, it represents our plea for the conservation of this fascinating, beautiful and highly endangered floral kingdom.

A markerKirstenbosch -
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Southern Suburbs 7800, South Africa
[get directions]

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 26 comments

LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 6 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

Beautiful! Thank you fo sharing such wonder!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Lilly - thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Love and peace

Tony


Tony Flanigan profile image

Tony Flanigan 6 years ago from East London, South Africa

Ah yes Tony. Fynbos has a truly unique fragrance. I remember many many walks in the Sir Lowry's and Greyton areas. Great times. The house I mostly viewed as being "home"(back in the '70's) had a massive (at least 2m circumference) King Protea in the front left corner of the garden. I went past the house just recently, and it had been removed. :(

Thanks for this hub, really enjoyable.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

So glad you liked it, Tony. How sad that people will take out something as beautiful as a Protea! Especially one as large as that.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Love and peace

Tony


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

This was so beautiful, it made me think of how the world ought to be.

love and peace.

thank you, Tony


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Thank you Tony. It's nice to become more acquainted with the "cradle". Very nicely done Brother Man.


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 6 years ago from South Africa

The most dearest friends of mine in Franskraal take tourist up the mountain in 4x4’s to show them the most beautiful fynbos – they also take them on the Ghost Trip (Spooktoer), so that they can meet our famous ghosts in that area. I love fynbos, but not in my home, because you know the smell.... Thanks for this awesome hub, Tony. Somehow we have a telepathic connection, for fynbos was on my hubs-to-do-list. LOL. But I wouldn’t have done it so perfect as you did.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 6 years ago from Southern Illinois

Tony, the flowers are truly beautiful. I would love to visit Africa, but that will never happen, i,m afraid of heights, so i would never fly, but you can tell us all about your beautiful country. Great hub.

Love and Peace


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 6 years ago from TEXAS

I LOVE that. New Orleans has its own smell - I finally identified it - vetiver. And we used to get a "wave" of something floral and wonderful in our back yard. We live fairly close to the Dallas Arboretum, so possibly it was when the breeze shifted from that direction. But I have a sensitive & appreciative "nose" and can only imagine how glorious the aroma from this Cape Floral Kingdome must be!! I'm so glad you shared this with us!


amillar profile image

amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

Hi Tony - I think I should emigrate.


msorensson profile image

msorensson 6 years ago

Ohhh I love...Thanks so much!!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dim - yes this is how the world should be!

Micky - glad you feel you are learning more about this great and exciting country, the "cradle"!

Martie - you are too kind! Ek dink ek wil daai spooktoer neem!

Ruby - I will keep on telling about this country with all its wonders!

Nellieanna - the aroma is indeed intoxicating, really! I love it.

Amillar - yes, come on over, friend, the water's great! We need people like you here.

Melinda - glad you enjoyed also.

Thanks everyone for visiting and commenting. I really appreciate it all.

Love and peace

Tony


equealla profile image

equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

I suddenly think of Sonja and Laurika singing : Kaap o Kaap, o Mooiste Kaap, jy maak my hart so baie seer...

Something about the Cape allways bring the artistic and beautiful to the fore. So many stories, so many poems and songs. Still it continues to enchant everyone going there!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Every time you write about SA, you make me want to come and visit. You are going to cost me a fortune in the end. . :-))) Wonderful hub Tony.

I now stopped receiving ANY notices from Hubpages, so don't be surprised if it takes me some time to visit :-))

Did the badge arrive?


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Francis - ek het nog nie daardie lied gehoor nie, maar ek sal wel uitkyk daarvoor! Dankie. The Cape is still "the fairest in the world" and somehow brings out the best in us, I think.

Dimitris - so come! I just read your comment out to my wife, who's immediate response was, "So why doesn't he come?" So come!

We only visit our post box once a week and the badge had not arrived by the time of the last visit. Perhaps in the next day or two? Will let you know as soon as I get it. Thanks.

Thanks to you both for visiting and commenting. Much appreciated.

Love and peace

Tony


equealla profile image

equealla 6 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

Tony, dis die koortjie van Waterblommetjies uit die Boland!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Baie dankie, Francis. Ek soek dit nou!


mulberry1 profile image

mulberry1 6 years ago

The plant life/flowers would definitely be of interest to me. (Although the game would be hard to compete with for my attention) Thanks for the introduction.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Christine - glad to have introduced you to this wonder of the world! Come visit sometime and smell the scent of Africa!

Love and peace

Tony


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

You know how I feel about Cape Town! It's the best place in the world!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 5 years ago from South Africa Author

Cindy - thanks so much for stopping by. Hope you are continuing to get better and better and not too much pain. Been thinking of you a lot.

I feel the same way about Cape Town - best place in the world indeed!

Love and peace

Tony


Suelynn profile image

Suelynn 4 years ago from Manitoba, Canada

Tonymac, this is OUTSTANDING! Tears prickling watching the videos and what fantastic information you have presented here. Fascinating reading and illustrations! Thank you for sharing this with us. I am bowled over. Voted up and across the board (except for funny)! This made my day!


Suelynn profile image

Suelynn 4 years ago from Manitoba, Canada

Question: I tried to use the Google map feature on an article of mine but couldn't get the location to stick.... could you tell me how?


Roja 3 years ago

The oldest art obctejs in the world were discovered in a South African cave. Dating from 75,000 years ago, these small drilled snail shells could have no other function than to have been strung on a string as a necklace. South Africa was one of the cradles of the human species. One of the defining characteristics of our species is the making of art (from Latin ars' meaning worked or formed from basic material).


Roci 3 years ago

The deputy praeidsnt is Kgalema Mothlanthe.Plus thepopulation is 49,991,300.79.4% is black,9.2% is white,8.8% is cloured and2.6% is asian.south africa is near the atlantic ocean and the indian ocean.


Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders 19 months ago from East London, South Africa

Good article - you always do a great job. Recently visited Cape Town and the smell of the fynbos started near PE. Also worked in the Bedford/Somerset East area recently and that is an area you know well.

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