Visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

The term ‘biome’ was also introduced into South African scientific literature in the 1970s. A biome is the highest category of vegetation recognised at continental scale, defined according to the dominant growth form and structure of its vegetation and the major climatic features that affect this. It focuses on structure and function, not floristics, which is concerned with the distribution of individual species.

In one of the most important contributions to the region’s biodiversity literature of the new millennium, researchers at the Kirstenbosch Research Centre, in collaboration with over 100 ecologists across the country, completed a 10-year project to produce a monumental encyclopaedia

The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Published in 2006 under the leadership of Michael Rutherford at the Kirstenbosch Research Centre and Ladislav Mucina at the University of Stellenbosch, the massive volume describes the ecology, composition, conservation status and distribution of the nine biomes and 435 vegetation types defined in the survey area, with a detailed map published at a scale of 1:1 million. The study defines nine biomes for southern Africa -Desert, Succulent Karoo, Nama-Karoo, Fynbos, Grassland, Savanna, Albany Thicket, Indian Ocean Coastal Belt and Forest. It is without doubt the finest treatise on any regional vegetation today.

Visit to Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden Photo Gallery

The surge of interest in, and research on, the ecology of fynbos stimulated by the Fynbos Biome Project produced a new generation of scientists – many of these now in leading positions in the country’s academic and research communities. Few have contributed more to our understanding of biomes than Richard Cowling, a young B.Sc Honours student at the time of the initiation of the project, and now globally recognised as the foremost authority on the subject. Cowling and his colleagues, William Bond, David Richardson and many others at the University of Cape Town during the exciting years of the 1980s and 1990s, have condensed the huge body of existing and new research into many papers in scientific journals, volumes of scientific syntheses and popular literature. Yet nowhere is there a short, simple, succinct answer to questions about the richness and the relative treelessness of the fynbos.

Three basic ecological factors determine plant life and ecosystem dynamics in fynbos. First is climate, characterised by hot dry summers with strong southeasterly winds, and cool wet winters, with gale-force northwesterlies. The extent of summer drought is variable, most intense in the west, decreasing eastwards across mountains but always a key determinant for plant growth and ecosystem dynamics. Second is the soil, which comprises shallow sandstone and granitic soils, low in essential nutrients. The soils, too, are variable, following the underlying geology, but for the most part are far poorer than the soils of other Mediterranean-type ecosystems – with the exception of those of southwestern Australia. And third is the regular occurrence of fires that are extensive and of high intensity. Fire, as in all Mediterranean ecosystems, is a temporally and spatially variable factor, but is key to the very existence of fynbos.

The amazing species diversity of the Fynbos Biome Gladiolus virgatus is a stunningly beautiful gladiolus found on a few mountains of the Helderberg and Du Toit’s Kloof – first known only from material bought in 1907from flower sellers in Cape Town, and not described until 1993.

For centuries, botanists have wrestled with the paradox of a speciesrich, treeless flora on the windswept, nutrient-deficient soils of the Cape. But the southwestern Cape, home to the Cape Floral Kingdom and to the Fynbos Biome, was not always a place of winter rains and open, treeless heathlands.

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