The Cape Region forms a small area on the southwestern tip of the African continent. This landscape has ancient mountain ranges that have weathered over millions of years into acidic sandy soils low in nutrients which are critical for plant growth. The Cape Region is renowned for its showy and diverse flora and is unlike that of any other area of the world. The characteristic vegetation is fynbos, an evergreen shrubland dominated by the family Proteaceae and a diverse assemblage of small-leaved shrubs. A second important community is renosterveld, a low shrubland which occurs on richer soils. Herbaceous geophytes (i.e. plants with bulbs, tubers, or other fleshy underground organs) are a notable plant group in both communities. Woodland and forest communities are rare.
These once high mountains have been eroded over the past 200 million years to form low ranges capped by resistant Table Mountain sandstone. Separating the mountains are gentle valleys and undulating plains that are largely underlain by shales with greater nutrient availability. Relatively young Tertiary and Quaternary limestones and sands mantle extensive areas of the coast.
The characteristic vegetation of the Cape Region, particularly on the nutrient-poor quartzite soils, is fynbos. Fynbos is an evergreen shrubland dominated by four major plant morphological groups. These include two shrub groups (the proteoids and ericoids), a sedge-like group (restioids), and geophytes. The proteoids, formed by woody Proteaceae, form the tallest matrix of the fynbos community and commonly reach to 2–4m in height. The ericoid group gains its name from the Ericaceae, but includes more than 3000 species of small-leaved shrubs representing many families. The restioids are primarily members of the Restionaceae, a family with origins in Gondwanaland but its primary diversification in the fynbos. Finally, the Cape Region contains the highest diversity of bulbs and other geophytes in the world, with more than 1500 species. Many types of fynbos have been described, but a simple classification scheme includes
proteoid fynbos, ericaceous fynbos, restioid fynbos, asteraceous fynbos, and grassy fynbos.
Another important vegetation type of the Cape Region is renosterveld, a low shrubland occurring on richer soils originating from shale parent material. It is floristically differentiated from fynbos by the absence of
restioids and minor importance of proteoids. This community once covered more than a quarter of the Cape Region, but has now largely been cleared for agriculture and urban expansion.
Woodland and forest communities are surprisingly rare in the Cape Region. True forests occupy only about 3850 km2 of moist sites (800–1200 mm annual rainfall) along the southern coast that are relatively protected from fire. These forests are low in diversity and represent depauperate outliers of afro-montane forests of tropical East Africa.