Text and photos by Zoë Poulsen
On New Year’s Eve of this year, in the small Overstand town of Bettys Bay, a boat flare was set off, landing in the fynbos on the mountains above. This was to be the beginning of one of the biggest fires of the 2019 season and the worst in the Overstrand for more than 30 years.
Above: Fynbos above Harold Porter National Botanical Garden two weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire, looking towards Leopards Kloof.
After several days with fire crews from across the Overberg and beyond giving all their worth at the fire line, it was thought that Bettys Bay and nearby Pringle Bay were out of danger. Then the wind picked up. Howling gale force southeaster winds sent the fire barrelling down the mountainside into the heart of Bettys Bay and Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, jumping across the R44 and roaring through the fynbos towards Pringle Bay. Terrified residents were evacuated, houses were ablaze and a life sadly lost. Many lost everything and the community was left reeling. My heart goes out to all those affected.
Above: Blooms of Amaryllis belladonna near Pringle Bay after the Betty’s Bay fire.
South Africa’s fynbos is a fire prone and fire dependent vegetation, making it a tough neighbour to live alongside when the summer fires come. Without fire there would be no fynbos. Many fynbos species are completely reliant on fire to flower, set seed and reproduce. After this tragedy comes new life to the veld, like a phoenix out of the ashes.
Top: Locally endemic Haemanthus canaliculatus flowering after the Betty’s Bay fire. Above: Fire lily (Cyrtanthus ventricosus) in bloom two weeks after the Betty’s Bay fire.
Initially after a fire moves through the landscape the grey ash and blackened stems of fynbos shrubs resemble a lunar landscape. Across the landscape in the first few days the heat from the fire and chemicals from the smoke trigger the opening of seed cones and release of many thousands of seeds. These will form the next generation of Proteaceae.
Above: Red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) blooming in wetland at Pringle Bay after the Betty’s Bay fire.
Around ten days after the fire, on southwest facing slopes across the area fire lilies emerged, their blooming triggered by heat and chemicals in the smoke from the fire. Cyrtanthus ventricosus are the only true ‘fire lilies’, rarely seen and often waiting for years for an opportunity to bloom.
Above: The zigzag trail above Harold Porter NBG, looking towards Disa Kloof, with fynbos resprouters and residers growing apace.
As the autumn rains come later in the season, they trigger the emergence of autumn bulbs such as Amaryllis belladonna and rare local endemic Haemanthus canaliculatus, flowering en masse after the fire. By April, the wetlands by the junction to Pringle Bay were ablaze with colour from carpets of red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria).
Above: King Protea (Protea cynaroides), South Africa’s national flower, resprouting above Harold Porter NBG after the Betty’s Bay fire.
By late May, Harold Porter NBG’s hardworking horticultural team had repaired many of the paths in the garden, granting access to Leopard’s Kloof and the upper contour path through the fynbos leading to Disa Kloof. With some fynbos species re-sprouting and some reseeding after fire moves through the landscape, the once blackened ash-covered slopes are now green, full of new shoots from king proteas (Protea cynaroides) to sundews (Drosera spp.). The tiny delicate white flowers of Crassula capensis, also known as Cape Snowdrops, can be seen blooming in damp areas under rock overhangs.
Above: Sundews (Drosera spp.) and a Restio resprouting after the Betty’s Bay fire.
The hard work to restore Harold Porter NBG fully to its former glory will no doubt continue over the next few months, with much work still to be done. Those affected will never forget the 2019 Bettys Bay fire. Meanwhile as new life comes to the fynbos, visitors to the garden will marvel at the constantly changing new growth emerging from the ashes.