When summer comes to Rhebokskloof, a profound change happens to the fynbos above the vineyards. Suddenly the pastel colours of delicate perennials such as gladioli, the creamy buttery flowers of red root (Wachendorfia) and “pypies” (Lachenalia) have withered to brown and the entire landscape has taken on hues of grey, rather like renosterveld. But wait, below this canopy of matt grey, there is life and colour and activity. Now, more than ever, you have to immerse yourself into the vegetation so see why this undergrowth type is world famous.
The very first thing that catches the eye, is kapokbos (Eriocephalus). The rosettes of small white flowers have now been replaced by little balls of pure white cotton, from where the plant gets its name, and you can bet that every nest of the resident robins, sugarbirds, flycatchers and thrush was lined with this natural botanical fleece during the breeding season. I have a suspicion that the wonderful rosemary essential oil in the leaves in rubs off on the birds whilst collecting the fibres, and might serve the purpose of protecting them from parasites, as well as lending a measure of waterproofing to the feathers.
Now, kneel next to the kapokbos, and lower yourself to ground level. The day before my visit, a light rain shower fell, and this was the stimulus for harvester termites to appear from the darkness underground and, quickly, while the soil was still wet, add additional passages and “rooms” to their mounds. While some workers were building, others were cutting dry grass and leaves for food. The cellulose in plant matter is indigestible to termites, so, in order to break it down, they have underground spaces where the grass is stored and inoculated with a special fungus. Once the plant matter has been digested, the fungus produces a crust of fruiting bodies (much like mushrooms), and this serves as food for the entire colony. It struck me that, at Rhebokskloof, two parallel processes are at work: fine wine is produced from grapes, carefully tended and nurtured by viticulturists and wine makers, whilst the surrounding fynbos has similar processes at work. Both these systems assure good soil health and sustainable life.
Walk deeper into the fynbos, and you will find that there is still colour. At least three species of plakkies (Cotyledon) is now in full bloom, but it is the larger species that catches the eye with its marvelous peach and yellow flowers. Closer to the grouns there are more plakkies, with little rosettes of buttery flowers. These plants are succulents, and it makes complete ecological sense for them to flower after the ephemeral gladiolus en red root. Why? If all plants flowered together, there would be severe competition for insects to pollinate them. But, if you stagger and time your flowers, you are assured of a dedicated work force of pollinators!
But colour is not restricted to plants alone on Rhebokskloof. Famed for its granite outcrops, the exposed rocks Paarl hosts of the loveliest lichens imaginable. Lichens, off course, are not single organisms, but rather a symbiotic (a relationship that benefits both) body comprising of interwoven fungi and algae. The health of any ecosystem can be measured by the presence and mixture of lichens, and going by Rhebokskloof’s wonderful spreads of lichen, the fynbos is healthy and thriving.
As the temperature increases, the fynbos will dry out even more, but, in my report for December, I can assure you of continued colour, continued wonders.