5 minutes with… Tessa Oliver

First published in Landscape Design & Garden – Spring 2014


With the approach of the Cape wildfire season, we spoke to Tessa Oliver of the Fynbos Fire Project about the benefits of incorporating fynbos into your landscape.


How did you get into fynbos and fire prevention?

After studying humanities at Stellenbosch and UCT, my career went in a biological direction. My knowledge of local flora, absorbed from my parents who were both botanists, helped me secure a job with Cape Nature at their scientific services section. Since then I’ve worked for the Agricultural Research Council and the South African National Biodiversity Institute.


What is your current role?

I coordinate the GEF Fynbos Fire project, which focuses on reducing disaster risks from wildland fire hazards associated with climate change. I am also the chairperson of the Fynbos Forum.


Why does fynbos help to protect your property against fire?

Fynbos burns at a lower temperature than most exotic plants. Don’t be scared to use fynbos in your landscaping and don’t be scared to approach experts for their opinions on which species to plant in the area you are in.  As well as being fire adapted, fynbos provides food and habitat for birds, butterflies and insects, and also creates corridors for animals to move between protected areas, thereby ensuring gene flow between populations


What fynbos plants are best?

Low-growing succulents like vygies  (such as CarpobrotusDorotheanthus bellidiformis, Mesembryanthemums andLampranthus) or aloes are perfect for ‘firescaping’ as they have a high water content. They’re also waterwise, low maintenance and have gorgeous flowers.


Can you mix in exotic plants?

Mixing in the wrong kind of exotics can increase the flammability and fuel load, so rather keep it local


Are trees always a fire risk? 

Not at all. Many indigenous trees, like milkwoods, are highly recommended for firewise landscaping. They have a special chemical in their leaves and bark that means they don’t burn as intensely as exotic species.


Can fynbos survive global warming?

Some species have very specific habitat requirements and will probably not be able to survive a 5 degree increase of mean temperature, but most of the commercially available species are adapted to varying conditions and will probably not be affected.


What is the biggest threat to the fynbos biome? 

The rampant spread of invasive alien plants such as pines, hakea and Australian acacias.