Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Metro Map

Six floral kingdoms are recognised – Boreal or Holarctic (Eurasia and North America); Palaeotropic (Africa); Neotropic (South and Central America); Australasian; Antarctic; and the Cape Floral Kingdom (CFK). The Boreal Kingdom covers over 42 per cent of the world’s land surface area, and the CFK covers less than 0.04 per cent – a minute crescent of land along the extreme southwest and south coast of the African continent. But while the Boreal Kingdom has a flora of some 45 000 species, that of the CFK has 9 381 – roughly 16 times the species density of the Boreal. More impressive are the high levels of endemism in the CFK, with over 68 per cent of its flora found nowhere else on the planet, and comprising some 154 endemic genera (whole genera that occur nowhere else on Earth) and six endemic or nearendemic families (again, plant families that are found nowhere else on Earth). But this flora is under threat, with no fewer than 1 736 of its species being assessed in danger of extinction if current trends of land transformation continue.

Rudolf Marloth was born in Lubben, Germany, in 1855. He studied pharmacology in Germany and Switzerland, but poor health persuaded him to travel to warmer climes. On 30 December 1883 he arrived in Cape Town. Two days after the long sea voyage, he climbed Table Mountain, and started assembling a herbarium that was to expand to 15 000 specimens before his death in 1931. An indefatigable mountaineer and an acutely observant natural historian, he soon knew the Cape, and much of southern Africa, better than the locals. He had worked with the great plant geographer Andreas Franz Schimper, and had undoubtedly read much of naturalist Alexander von Humbolt’s pioneering work on vegetation patterns, altitudinal zonation and climatic and other determinants of plant distribution – sufficient for him to recognise the globally unique character of the Cape flora, and coin the term ‘Cape Floral Kingdom’.

The Cape Floral Kingdom is 90 760 square kilometres in extent. It stretches in a narrow band from near Vanrhynsdorp in the north, south to the Cape Peninsula, and eastwards through the southern Cape as far as Grahamstown. It lies within 200 kilometres of the coast, following the Cape Fold Mountains of the Western Cape. The CFK is dominated by the Fynbos Biome (82 per cent), with patches of Succulent Karoo (12 per cent), Subtropical Albany Thicket (3 per cent) and Afrotemperate Forest (0.1 per cent).

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Metro Map Photo Gallery

The distinction between the Cape Floral Kingdom and its dominant vegetation – fynbos – is subtle and often confused, or confusing. Although the CFK is defined largely by the presence of fynbos, its boundaries also encompass a much smaller component of other vegetation types, as detailed above. Scattered islands of fynbos also occur beyond the CFK. Thus, although fynbos and the CFK are almost, but not quite, synonymous, the now more commonly used term for the region is ‘fynbos’.

The Fynbos Biome Diverse fynbos abounds in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, inscribed by UNESCO in 1998 as the first Biosphere Reserve in South Africa.

In the 1970s, a suite of detailed interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects was coordinated by the CSIR. These became known as the Ecosystem or, later, the Biome Projects. First was the Savanna Ecosystem Project at Nylsvley; the Fynbos Biome Project was next, followed by similar projects investigating the Karoo, Forest and Grassland biomes. Their impact on South African biodiversity science has been profound.

The leading botanists and zoologists of the time argued endlessly on the choice of name for the biome. Terms such as capensis, maquis, sclerophyllous bush, heathland or even macchia (then in use in the standard text, John Acocks’ classic Veld Types of South Africa) were rejected. Fred Kruger, then Director of the South African Forestry Research Institute at Jonkershoek, championed the use of the traditional term ‘fynbos’ (from the Dutchfijnbos, pronounced ‘fayne-boss’) – and won the day. Ironically, the term was originally somewhat scathingly applied by early settlers to any sort of woodland lacking in timber trees, a critical resource; but it soon replaced its synonyms in all scientific and popular literature. The enthusiasm for the Cape flora and vegetation was reflected in the success of the Fynbos Biome Project, annual meetings of which continue to this day as the Fynbos Forum.

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