Species diversity patterns are the product of diversification rate variation, but the factors influencing changes in diversification rates are poorly known. Radiation is thought to be the result of ecological opportunity: the right traits in the right environment at the right time. We test this in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa, in which pyrophytic heathland (fynbos) and non-pyrophytic Afromontane forest occur interdigitated. We infer transitions from forest to fynbos in three Cape clades (Penaeaceae, Phyliceae and Diosmeae) and test if they are associated with diversification rate shifts and the evolution of functional traits linked to fire, high insolation and seasonal drought. We estimate diversification rate shifts using maximum likelihood and use phylogenetic comparative methods to show that forest to fynbos shifts were associated with decreases in leaf area and specific leaf area and preceded or coincided with increases in diversification rates. Furthermore, we show that Penaeaceae, Phyliceae and Diosmeae species are typical members of their vegetation types in terms of their traits. The diversification rate shifts of Penaeaceae and Phyliceae are dated to the Miocene, when postulated aridification-driven changes in the CFR fire regimes may have triggered expansion of the fynbos at the cost of forest, providing an ecological opportunity for the diversification of fynbos lineages.