With my stomach pressed into the warm rock of Table Mountain, I studied the peppermint lizard. In the distance, far below the reptile's pulsing gizzard, I could see Cape Town. For all its people and traffic, it seemed utterly still. But up here, in the South African shrubland called fynbos, it was all going on.
The peach-Melba pagodas of watsonia blooms attracted unfamiliar beetles. Something smelt cleanly of resin. Something else fast and furry made a dash beneath the jade succulents. As I twisted to glimpse a flutter of ruby and emerald - was it a sunbird? - the heather rustled and my lizard was gone.
Two days later, it was all gone. A British tourist was accused of dropping a cigarette on 26 January 2006. It's dry up there. And windy. An estimated 7km of vegetation was destroyed on the first day of the blaze and, according to conservation officials, approximately 40 to 50 per cent of the world's silver-leaf tree population burned to ash.
The event looked and felt like an environmental apocalypse, for a mountain habitat that supports around 1,470 species: more than the entire United Kingdom. But, in fact, natural fires on a smaller scale in the right season form an essential stage in the life cycles of most fynbos plants. If you've ever sent or received a postcard from South Africa, you're likely to have seen the fleshy bloom of a king protea on the postage stamp. It is the country's national flower, and its pods need the intense heat of a summer blaze to crack and germinate.
The real threat to the fynbos (pronounced feign-boss) comes from encroaching agriculture and the urban expansion of Cape Town. The spread of alien species from Australia (such as acacia and wattle) causes yet more damage. Many species unique to the 100km-200km wide coastal belt, which stretches from Clanwilliam to Port Elizabeth, have already become extinct. Over 1,000 other varieties are currently endangered. And this is the most botanically rich habitat on earth, with an even higher level of plant diversity than tropical rainforests.
Amid the fynbos's 7,700 plant species, you'll find the striped mouse, Cape sugarbird, rare myrmecophilous butterflies that eat ants, and the world's second- rarest tortoise, the beautifully shelled geometric tortoise.
So, what can we do to preserve it all? One of the leading movements involves sustainable harvesting of some of the habitat's exotic foliage for the floristry market. Most of the fynbos is privately owned, and to encourage its owners to maintain its delicate balance, there must be a profit involved. We're talking top-end bouquets designed to take these species from vanishing point to vase. And this autumn sees the launch of two fynbos brands in the UK: Waitrose's Blossom & Bloom Cape Flora range; and a selection of unusual mini-trees, wild wreaths and fynbos candles from Moyses Flowers.
"We did an exploratory visit to South Africa in April," says Simon Pearson, commercial director of Winchester Growers, which supplies Waitrose, "and its easy to see where the habitat is going. Although fire is normal, farmers have been burning too much too often, which causes it to go to grass. Then they put cattle on it. Or wheat, or forestry. People need the money. The sustainably picked flower farms are mainly small, struggling operations.
"We saw this project as a great opportunity to help them to develop the product. One of the farms we visited, Longmore, is a BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) farm, with black ownership and black shareholders. There are six or so people there making a couple of hundred bouquets a week. But we've tripled their volume overnight. There's a human and an environmental aspect that we're supporting."
I have one of Waitrose's exotic fynbos arrangements on my desk as I write. The waxy pink petals of the king proteas jut out through the spiky green of the leucadendrons and the tough papery bursts of erica, South African heather. The scent is subtle, woody, coniferous - it smells of hot origins. And it's ridiculously tactile: I have to keep prodding the lanuginous bobbles.
It's a huge treat for me to have cut flowers in the house. Since I read about the horrors of the cut-flower industry (the pesticides, the worker abuses, the air miles, the inland transportation costs), I've resisted the colourful (but short-term) luxury. I've picked pussy willow on country walks and grown cress as a table centre. While I feel my fynbos flowers are doing the world some good, their environmental audit isn't entirely in the black. They have come an awfully long way.
"It is all air-freighted," admits Pearson, "but not as cargo, all on passenger freight. There's a lot of northbound ex-passenger freight that is empty. It would have gone anyway. So, while the flowers have flown, we're not putting out any new carbon." He also points out that these bouquets are long-lasting. I've already had nine days out of mine, and it shows no sign of fading yet. But I have also seen a tiny, grey caterpillar fall off it, and a few minute red mites trekking down the outside of the vase.
Matt Shardlow, conservation director of the UK's Buglife, says: "Western Europe, and Britain in particular, has an absurdly laissez-faire attitude to the importing of biological material. Other places, such as Australia, New Zealand, even South Africa, won't let you do this willy-nilly." He cautions against invasive species. Did you know that the moth most commonly found in British gardens - the light-brown apple moth - is Australian? And the leaf miner moth that has been attacking our horse chestnuts? That's invasive, too.
"Last year, British customs impounded some tree ferns on their way into the country from somewhere antipodean," Sharlow says. "They included 248 species of invertebrate, 44 per cent of which were potential pests. The problem is that if cut flowers are sprayed, they put chemicals into the environment. If they're not, we risk invasive species."
John Kennedy, managing director of Moyses Flowers, agrees that fynbos bouquets have drawbacks. His company is involved with British growers, too. "We're not pretending to live in a perfect world," he says, "but, as a company, we're trying to do what many are doing as individuals.
"We hope to make a difference, to make things better, by providing carbon-neutral, long-lasting floral arrangements that help to preserve a rare habitat in a way that involves the local people."
How green is your bouquet?
n The British cut-flower market currently makes around £1.5bn per year, with over 80 per cent of those flowers imported from countries such as Kenya, where fields are sprayed with chemicals that damage both the health of poorly paid workers and the environment.
Last year, 19,000 tonnes of flowers were imported to the UK from Kenya, generating 33,000 tonnes of CO2.
The ethical, environmentally aware consumer should buy British and, ideally, organic where possible. Otherwise, they should look for fair-trade and environmentally friendly options. Pot plants and bulbs last longer and reduce waste.
The Organic Flower Company ( www.tofc.co.uk) sources organically grown flowers from around the world, paying growers and pickers a fair price. Bouquets from £25.
Wiggly Wigglers, an environmentally conscious gardening company in Hereford, offers next-day delivery bouquets made using what is available locally and seasonally. Costing from £32, bouquets are assembled from whichever flowers and foliage are at their best that day ( www.wigglywigglers.co.uk).
For more local suppliers of cut flowers, visit: www.soilassociation.comReuse content