Fascinated by fynbos

I recently celebrated my birthday at Grootbos nature reserve, a beautiful reserve near Hermanus in the Western Cape. Curious to try something a little different, Reg and I went on their fynbos tour. I was reminded of the rich diversity of these plants and just how special both they and the Cape really are.

Some fynbos species have become well known and sought after around the world, such as rooibos and honeybush for teas, or aloes in skincare products and geraniums to make the garden pretty. This only scratches the surface of what Fynbos has to offer and I thought I’d share some of the fascinating things I’ve learnt about fynbos.

Protected plants

Doing this research I was tempted to go skipping off up the mountain slopes to try and gather some samples, but please don’t do this! Not only are the plants protected by law, but the entire Cape Floral Kingdom has been named a world heritage site by Unesco. Don’t worry though – most nurseries have begun offering more and more indigenous plants over the years.

Fuzzy fynbos definitions

So, what exactly is Fynbos? The name comes from the Dutch for “fine bush”, but starting there can get confusing. What we today call fynbos is a collective name for the distinctive scrubland vegetation found across much of the Cape. So fynbos is a specific vegetation type, but not a specific category or type of plant. 

For an easy comparison, The Amazon has piranhas, anacondas, jaguars and more creepy crawlies than I care to think about. While each of them is distinctly Amazonian, they’re otherwise completely unrelated and have closer relatives elsewhere in the world like the goliath tigerfish, python and leopard in Africa.

While this makes things difficult for scientists, I’m just a food blogger and I’m not going to worry too much about that. After all, scientifically, there’s no such thing as a fish, but that’s never stopped me putting together fish recipes. And we all know better than to put a tomato into a fruit salad.

Royal riches

Fynbos is found across the Western Cape and Eastern Cape and makes up 80% of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is world renowned for being the only floral kingdom to exist within a single country. To the casual eye, the mostly dull colours of fynbos don’t look like anything all that special. Looking closer though, there are literally thousands of different plants and flowers all growing together to make the area three times more species diverse than the Amazon rainforest. Table Mountain’s rocky landscape alone has many plant species as all of Great Britain.

This floral kingdom’s riches have been used in traditional remedies for hundreds and thousands of years, but it is only in recent years that scientific studies have begun to verify what traditional healers knew all this time.

Beyond the birds and the bees

One of the things that has made it difficult to cultivate many fynbos species is that we’re still learning about how many of them actually propagate and get their seeds to germinate. We all know the important roles birds and bees play in pollination, but it seems many types of fynbos like to get a little extra help. 

Each season when fires ravage the Cape’s mountain slopes, there’s always the quiet consolation that for many plants that same destructive fire is essential for them to regrow. This is true for many types of fynbos, including our majestic proteas, but often this is only part of a bigger group effort including mice or ants.

My guide at Grootbos, Gareth Williams, explained the important role rodents play. Many of the fynbos plants like the proteas have low blooming flowers, and bloom at night when rodents are active. The flowers are sweet and musty to attract mice and some of the flowers even form like big cups that the mice fit into. The pollen gets stuck to their noses and they go from flower to flower spreading pollen.

Gareth also showed me a pin cushion protea, which has a coating around its seeds. Ants are attracted to these seeds so they take them into their mounds where they eat the coatings but leave the seed. The seed is now safely underground – it’s protected from mice and birds and is in ideal conditions. It then waits in the fertile nest until a fire comes and kills off the vegetation above to make conditions just right for it to grow.

Tonics, teas and tinctures

Among the many uses of fynbos, it’s been most popular as a tea around the world, with rooibos being a proud South African product that’s in high demand. (I wrote about rooibos and all it’s positive health benefits here), so I’ll skip ahead to its less famous cousin.

Honeybush hasn’t enjoyed the same booming international popularity of rooibos, but this sweet sounding bush produces a tea equally rich in all the good stuff. Named for the scent of honey given off by the yellow gold flowers, honeybush has less of the bitter taste that puts some people off rooibos. Unlike “regular” Ceylon tea, this can also be left to simmer through the day without growing bitter. Instead, brewing for longer just makes it richer in all those good antioxidants.

Photo of the honeybush plant
A honeybush plant growing in Kirstenbosch Gardens (Credit: WikiCommons)

According to researchers, there are no negative side effects to drinking honeybush tea, while the list of benefits runs quite long. It is credited with boosting the immune system, promoting skin and bone health, alleviating symptoms of diabetes and respiratory ailments as well as being high in cancer fighting antioxidants. For all the many species of honeybush, only a handful have been successfully cultivated so far, thanks to that complicated interplay of ants and fire. For the rest, the tea still needs to be harvested naturally in the wild.  

Buchu is a name you’ve probably come across before. It’s become popular as a healthy tea and has attracted a few craft brewers and distillers to experiment with it (Check my Cape Town craft beer and Cape Town craft gin articles). This jump in popularity might be recent, but the plant has been used for centuries as a traditional remedy to promote good health and vitality.

It was known as the “elixir of youth” by the Khoisan, who chewed the leaves and treated wounds with poultices made from the leaves. They also mixed it with oil to make a natural moisturiser, which must have been especially handy living in such dry and harsh conditions.

Buchu is also reportedly good for hangovers and buchu-brandy is an age-old boereraat (traditional Afrikaans farmer’s remedy). One word of caution though, avoid this plant if you are pregnant. It contains pulegone, which is also found in the pennyroyal plant that has been used to induce miscarriages as far back as ancient Greece.

Photo of the golden flower of the bulbinella plant
The golden flower of the bulbinella plant. (Credit: WikiCommons)

Bulbinella plants have a gorgeous golden flower, but they’re good for far more than just the garden. This plant is particularly good for the skin and can be used to treat blisters, insect bites, rashes, cracked lips and acne. 

It’s quite similar to aloe vera, which the beauty industry has taken such a liking to. Like aloe, the thick leaves can be broken off and the sticky juice can be rubbed directly onto the skin.

Bulbinella leaves have also been mixed with boiling water and strained off as a traditional remedy for coughs, colds and arthritis. All that said, it’s also very good for the garden too as it is drought resistant and hardy.

Learning more about fynbos has left me with an even greater appreciation of nature. I’ve always had a deep love for the beauty of nature, but this left me feeling awed by just how cleverly everything works together.

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