Rising from the Ashes
Words and pics Sean Privett
In March this year the Cape Peninsula was ablaze. Newspaper headlines read death, destruction and barren post-fire landscapes. Yet it is through fire that our amazing fynbos landscapes are revitalised, rejuvenated and explode back into life.
During the first week of March 2015 a huge wild-fire burnt across the southern Cape Peninsula. An area of some 5,000 hectares was burnt, stretching from the slopes of Muizenberg on the Indian Ocean side of the Peninsula across and down to the Atlantic coastline near Hout Bay. Immediately following the fire the previously lush green slopes, with their magnificent variety of fynbos species, were transformed into a blackened, ash-covered, lunar-like landscape.
A walk through these desolate hills after the fire gave no indication of what was to follow. Death and destruction was everywhere, and all that remained were blackened stems and an endless sea of grey ash. But within days this seemingly lifeless Cape Town landscape started to transform itself back into a botanical wonderland.
By spring, just a few months after the fire, soft winter rains had brought about an amazing transformation. Bulbs that had been dormant for decades rebounded into full flowering force, Protea seeds stored in the dried flowers and cones of the adult plants killed in the fire showered down into the ash covered soils.
This layer of post-fire ash provided essential nutrients for germination and early growth of the recovering fynbos. Many of the plants are adapted to survive fire, re-sprouting within a few weeks from woody underground lignotubers – woody swellings of the root crown used by some plants as protection against fire. While the above ground parts of the plant are destroyed in the fire, the plant is not killed. Instead the crown contains buds from which new stems rapidly sprout. These re-sprouting plants have a major advantage after fire in comparison with plants that rely entirely on seeds for germination. A great example of a rapid re-sprouter is Erica cerinthoides (Fire heath). Just six weeks after the Cape Peninsula fire this beautiful erica was already in full flower.
Others such as the tree protea, (waboom) initially appear blackened and dead, yet they have a special thick, corky white-grey bark that protects them from fire. A few weeks after fire these amazing plants push out new leaves and are fully recovered and flowering within a year.
So don’t be put off from walking in the Cape Town mountains this summer. Instead embrace the opportunity to experience the splashes of colour, fragrances, textures and new life brought about by fire.