Climbers in the Fynbos

Climbing plants are uncommon in fynbos. The principle behind a climbing plant in forest or bushveld is to reach the light above when other plants have a head start. So in fynbos, when every 20 years or so the canopy is burnt to the ground and all plants are back at the start line again, that principle is of no advantage. So it appears that the main aim of climbing in fynbos is to gain height without putting in resources needed for a strong stem. After all, it is just going to get burnt to the ground again. Cyphia volubilis is a common fynbos climber that uses any plant from restios to ericas to raise its flowers up above the ground bringing them into full view of any potential pollinators. This turns a rather ordinary restio into a beautiful flowering plant. Cyphia volubilis is never vigorous enough to harm its host but the host gets no visible benefit from lending a hand.

Flowering stem of Cyphia volubilis (Lobeliaceae)

Flowering stem of Cyphia volubilis

Flowers of Cyphia volubilis (Lobeliaceae)

Flowers of Cyphia have three lobes pointing up and two down

Identifying Cyphia

The genus Cyphia is closely related to the well-known Lobelia found in gardens throughout the world. The similarity can be seen in the two-lipped flowers, with 3 lobes on one side and 2 on the other. But compare the two flowers and you will see that Cyphia has 3 lobes on top and 2 below, whereas Lobelia has 2 above and 3 below. (This is because Lobelia flowers are upside-down, a term correctly called “resupinate”.) Lobelia are known for their strong blue colour (admittedly many Lobelia are not blue), but Cyphia only come in shades of white to mauve. Lobelia are found almost worldwide, Cyphia on the other hand are restricted to Africa, particularly South Africa. Cyphia also differs from other closely related genera such as Monopsis or Wimmerella by having the petals free to the base and not fused into a tube. The plants also form tubers, the leaves and stems dying back each summer. Cyphia is barely known in cultivation but many would make attractive rock garden plants.

Common Climbing Cyphia

There are two common climbing Cyphia. We have only found Cyphia volubilis at Phillipskop, but Cyphia digitata also grows in the surrounding area. The two can be easily distinguished because Cyphia digitata has leaves with 3 to 5 narrow lobes (although some leaves may occasionally be unlobed). Cyphia volubilis on the other hand has narrowly lanceolate leaves with small teeth. The flowers of Cyphia digitata are also smaller (7–11mm long) than Cyphia volubilis (14–20 mm long).

Twining stem of Cyphia volubilis (Lobeliaceae)

Twining stem and toothed leaves of Cyphia volubilis

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