Field Guide to Fynbos could have left one as bedazzled as a butterfly in a field of wildflowers. It could have delivered a total sensory overload of shapes and colours and remembered fragrances, were it not for the precise structure and the clearly mapped out footpath through the intricacies of taxonomy. By Joan Kruger

A field guide is meant to be carried with you and to be pulled out of your backpack if a striking, but unknown, flower or plant stops you in your tracks. What plant is it? Where do you begin your search? Could it belong to the Roridula family? Or to the Prionium? And if a local tells you it’s a hongerblom or klaaslouwbos, how do you verify that?

Fortunately, John Manning’s excellent Field guide to Fynbos turns the most vexing questions into easy answers, so that plant identification becomes a walk in the park, or rather a stroll among the fynbos.

This defininitive guide, “the result of several decades of intensive fieldwork and study”, was first published in 2007. It has now been republished in a fully updated edition, just in time for spring. Hint: you will know it’s the 2018 edition thanks to the cover: instead of the Erica longifolia it sports a picture of the Leucospermum conocarpodendron (yellow pincushion) on the cover. And a good thing, too, that there’s a new edition. Not only for first-time buyers, but also for those of us whose copies, although sturdily bound, are falling apart from overuse.

What’s different in the new edition?

Among the more than 1,100 striking pictures you will find a number of new ones. The guide also reflects the reclassification of certain plants, such as the Sonderino, now Diaspermum (p. 366).

For the beginner, the guide provides a gentle introduction to the bewilderingly abundant world of fynbos (9,000 species of flowering plants, but here quite sensibly restricted to the more showy specimens) through infographics and illustrations. Illustrations help you decode such arcane concepts as ‘umbel’ and ‘panicle’ where it comes to inflorescence types. An infographic tells you how to decode the succinct but comprehensive information given for every species treated in the book. This includes distribution maps, descriptions of telling features and notes on traditional uses.

To simplify indentification, plants have been clustered into eight groups of plant families with notable characteristics in common. Each plant is illustrated with a close-up picture.

The fine art of plant identification is the aim of the book, but its charm lies in the introductory notes to the world of fynbos: the origins, diversity, pollination (from rock mice to beetles, birds, butterflies and even horseflies) and the adaptation of the various species. My favourite part is Manning’s description of the origins of fynbos, going back tens of millions of years ago. Just imagine the slow drifting apart of land masses, Antarctica and Australia slowly separating, the Benguela Current making its presence felt and the ancestors of fynbos starting to appear.

Much of the richness at the species level must be of recent age, having evolved since the establishment of the modern climate in the past few million years, and arising in an ‘orgy of speciation’… – John Manning

What lies behind a name?

On a par with the evolution of fynbos is the poetry of the common names given to the fynbos plants. They, in themselves, tell the story of an emerging South African society. There are names given by the Khoina (baroe, kukumakranka, boegoe). Others were adapted from the Malay-Portuguese of slaves (froetang from fruta, a reference to the juicy ripe fruits).

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Mimetes hottentoticus

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Gladiolus angustus

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Erica inflata

The Dutch also contributed names, which were captured by the first Swedish botanists (papierblom, fluweeltjie), and then came Afrikaans (suikerbos, moederkappie, brakbossie) and English (confetti bush, painted lady, drumsticks). The names tell the story of a pioneer people dependent on the healing powers of nature and also attest to their close observation of nature and innate creativity. Some of the names, like tjienkerientjee, sing happily in onomatopoeic imitation, in this case because of the squeaking sound produced when the stems are drawn across one another.

The medicinal use of some plants gave rise to their names: aambeibossie was used to treat haemorrhoids, hongerblom to make a tea believed to increase the appetite. A decoction made from agtdaegeneesbos was used as an antiseptic. Slangbos was believed to be an antidote for snakebite.

Some plants got their names becauce of their likeness to other objects. The stigmata of muistepelkaroo look like the nipples of a mouse, while the fluffy flowerheads of volstruisies resemble a brood of ostrich chicks, and the skoenveterbossie (incorrectly written as skoenvetierbossie) does indeed remind you of shoelaces. Certain names allude to the household uses of plants. Tontelblaar was used in tinder boxes, besemriet for brooms and inkblom as writing ink.

Fascinating snippets in the guide often give more information about the uses of the plant. Kukumakranka, for instance, was traditionally used to flavour brandy and perfume linen cupboards. Varkblom didn’t get its name because pigs loved to eat the roots, but because porcupines (ystervarke) did. And bobbejaantjies, because baboons loved the corms.

The guide has numerous practical uses, but just dipping in and out of it will give the reader endless hours of joyful contemplation.

Win a copy

Courtesy of Struik Nature, Wild is giving away two copies of Field Guide to Fynbos worth R310 each. Send an email to [email protected] (subject line: fynbos guide) before 11 October 2018 and you could win a copy. Remember to include your full names, postal address and contact details. Wild will randomly select the winners. Winners will be notified via email.

Winners: Annatjie Sawyer and Dave Law

Field Guide to Fynbos. John Manning. Struik Nature. R310.

Pictures courtesy of Struik Nature