Eco burn could resurrect lost plant

Meadowridge Common will not burn – again

An ecological burn set to happen on Wynberg Hill in the next two weeks just might resurrect a plant long thought extinct, says an environmental group.

Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET) says the burn could be the last chance to resurrect the Wynberg conebush, Leucadendron grandiflorum, at Zonnestraal.

“It used to grow on Wynberg Hill and is known only from the drawing of the male plant, last seen in cultivation in Clapham, London in 1806,” said the trust’s CEO, Dr Anthony Roberts.

Dr Roberts said the area, on the southern side of Wynberg Hill, had been under pine trees for 70 years until 2016, when the pines were cleared in preparation for a planned ecological burn in the 1.5ha of critically endangered peninsula granite fynbos. But that burn, planned for 2019, was thwarted by nature.

Dr Roberts said the onset of early rains following three years of drought had put a stop to ecological burns because of the “sterilising effect of steam”. And Covid-19 and lockdown also had not helped.

Now, CTEET has another chance to do the burn.

“We are now in the final stages of preparation, and we are hoping to conduct it in the next two weeks, weather dependent and also burn permit dependent,” said Dr Roberts. “We have let local residents know of the expected fire, but we are unable to set a date as we are waiting for the ideal weather conditions.”

Dr Roberts said that if there was still some seed in a seed bank there was a remote chance, albeit very small, that the fire would stimulate seeds of Leucadendron grandiflorum and they could germinate.

The Wynberg conebush, Leucadendron grandiflorum, used to grow on Wynberg Hill and is known only from the drawing of the male plant and was last seen in 1806 in Clapham, London, in cultivation.

The ecological burn season kicked off on Tuesday March 23 with a burn done by the Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries (DEFF) supported by the Western Cape Branch of Working on Fire (WOF) at Tokai Park’s Prinskasteel wetland block A19.

Friends of Tokai Park chairman and ecologist Dr Tony Rebelo said prescribed burns were done when conditions were perfect: 32ºC at 30% humidity. He said the Tokai burn had been a long time coming. “It was delayed after the pines were cleared, first by the drought and then by Covid-19,” he said.

Meadowridge Common and Zonnestraal are among 10 City of Cape Town conservation areas due for controlled burns by the City of Cape Town’s Biodiversity Management Branch.

Chairman of the Friends of the Meadowridge Common, Roger Graham wrote to the Bulletin two weeks ago to complain that a planned ecological burn for March 2020 had not taken place due to Covid.

Mr Graham said it would not take place this year either because one resident, who lives alongside the common, had threatened legal action were the burn to imperil his family’s health.

In response to questions about the planned burns on the common, mayoral committee member for spatial planning and environment, Marian Nieuwoudt, told the Bulletin that an ecological burn could not be done there this season because it had had more than 50mm of rain in the past month.

“The soil is damp and bulbs are sprouting, thus a fire would damage the plant species composition,” she said. The site will remain on the list of planned ecological burns for 2022, she said.

Ms Nieuwoudt said the City valued the partnership with the Friends of the Meadowridge Common and appreciated its commitment to conserving and restoring the site.

Burns maintained species diversity and reduced fuel loads that would normally intensify the impact of veld fires, she said.

Over the next week, the City’s biodiversity management team would determine whether all ecological factors allowed for planned burns to proceed, Ms Nieuwoudt said. Ecological burns needed to mimic natural summer conditions and were not viable after the onset of the early winter rains, she added.