The Cape Floristic Region may be tiny, but it packs a botanical punch. To the uninitiated — and count myself among those — it doesn’t look like much: tough, evergreen, hard-leafed shrubs and grasses on sandy soil with nary a tree in sight. But this area, located on the southern tip of Africa, boasts some of the greatest variety in plant species on the planet.
Small but diverse
The Cape Floristic Region, home to the Cape Floral kingdom (CFK), covers a fragmented area of just 80,000 to 90,000 km2 in South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape provinces. Representing a mere 0.05% of the earth’s land area, it contains about 3% of its plant species.
You’re not impressed? Let me put the numbers into context: that’s about a fifth of the flora of the entire African continent and more plant species than are found in all of North America. Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town, which is one of eight formally protected areas, contains more plant species in its 220 km2 than the whole of the British Isles or New Zealand.
The CFK is the smallest but most diversified of the world’s six floral kingdoms and the only one that is entirely contained within a single country. Of its more than 9,000 plant species, almost 70% are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on the planet.
A fine bush
The CFK is characterized by a unique type of vegetation called fynbos, a Dutch word translating to “fine bush,” but is also known for its variety of reeds, proteas and ericas. You may be familiar with rooibos tea and geraniums — they also originate here.
Most of these plants have evolved and adapted to the specific climatic, topographic and soil conditions prevalent in this part of the world and together they support an equally unique array of animals.
The CFK is one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage sites and is recognized as one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots. But its future is in jeopardy.
The CFK has been losing land to residential and commercial urban development, agriculture and commercial forest plantations for decades. Pressure has also come from the invasion and spread of alien plant species, including pine trees and Australian wattles and acacias.
The effects of climate change are expected to have a devastating effect in the future. With average temperatures projected to increase by around 1.8oC by 2050, the region is expected to become both hotter and drier. Many of the plant species are not particularly well adapted to drought conditions and may be pushed beyond their tolerance limits if warming trends continue as forecast.
Hotter and drier conditions will also result in more frequent and more severe bush fires. While many of the plants have evolved to cope with seasonal fires, these much more extreme fire conditions present a very serious threat. On the other side of the spectrum, an increase in intense rainfall events and flooding, which can be expected as part of the more and more unpredictable weather conditions associated with climate change, will lead to further diebacks in vegetation.
Global warming, in combination with the other environmental pressures, is threatening to squeeze CFK into a smaller and smaller and increasingly fragmented area. Some experts estimate that it could shrink by as much as 65% before the end of the century.
It’s not too late
What today is the Cape Floristic Region was once covered by lush rainforests, but some 15 million years ago, a natural change in climate resulted in their virtual disappearance. Today, climate change caused by humans is threatening to cause a major and much more rapid retreat and possibly even destruction of the CFK that replaced these forests.
Those of us who live here and enjoy the world’s smallest floral kingdom for all its quirks and uniqueness and its astounding beauty would quite like for it to be here by the time our children’s children and theirs for seven generations into the future and more inhabit our homes. It’s a very good reason for us to do whatever we can to stop climate change and environmental degradation. If you want to continue to drink rooibos tea or ever want to see the magnificent king protea or the red disa in their natural habitat, you should feel the same.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Photo from: Stock.Xchng