Erica blenna

Salisb. var. grandiflora Bolus

Family : Ericaceae
Common names : lantern heath, Riversdale heath (Eng.); belletjieheide (Afr.)

Image of E. blenna var. grandiflora Photo: Plantweb
© Plantweb

Erica blenna var. grandiflora is unusual in flower shape and colour and these attributes contribute to making South African ericas uniquely different from those in other parts of the world. It is one of the most magnificent ericas and is well known despite its relative unavailability to gardeners.

Description
Erica blenna var. grandiflora is a tall, erect, woody shrub, 1.2-1.5 m high. It usually produces a single thin woody stem with few side branches. The leaves and flowers are borne on short side branches at or near the top of the stem. The bark is greyish brown and its deep-green leaves are neatly arranged around the stem. The leaves point upwards and are slightly curved at their ends.

Only a few large inflated, urn-shaped flowers are borne at the tips of branches. The flowers are bright orange with green tips and are sticky. Flowering time is from April to November. Seeds are small and develop in small capsules in the ovary.

Image of E. blenna var. grandiflora flowers Photo: Plantweb
© Plantweb

It is found in two forms or variations: the smaller-flowered E. blenna var. blenna, which is more common and is a smaller shrub; E. blenna var. grandiflora with its strikingly beautiful large flowers is far better known, as it is more commonly photographed and featured in books. It is relatively short-lived, but mature specimens seen in habitat are estimated to be over 10 years old.

Conservation status
Erica blenna occurs in mountain reserves and is therefore well protected. It is, however, a slow-growing, woody species and therefore susceptible to too frequent fires. If its habitat burns too frequently it will not be able to recover fast enough to produce seed before the next burn and this could reduce its population.

Distribution and habitat
Erica blenna var. grandiflora is found on the lower, southern slopes of the Langeberg Mountain Range between Heidelberg and Riversdale. It grows in relatively moist mountain fynbos closely associated with other medium-sized, moisture-loving shrubs such as brunias. It has been successfully grown for many years, but needs a protected position. It is best grown in gardens in winter rainfall areas. It is not frost tolerant and must be well watered through the summer. It should be able to tolerate temperatures ranging from about 10-30 ºC. Higher and lower temperatures may be tolerated for short periods. Erica blenna var. blenna occurs between Swellendam and Riversdale and is also a smaller shrub.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Erica blenna derives its name from the Greek word blennos, which means mucous, referring to its sticky flowers.

Ecology
Erica blenna var. grandiflora grows in mountain fynbos on the moister southern slopes of the Langeberg. Plants are found on moderate to steep slopes between 500 and 900 m above sea level. They grow in rocky, sandy and acidic soils and in some places the soil medium is quite organic (peaty) and wet. The plants closely compete with other shrubs and therefore grow up to present their flowers at or just above the vegetation level. There is very little or no side branching or leaves up the long woody stem until the top of the plant. This gives the plant an unfortunate woody growth habit.

The shape of the flower with its narrow throat suggests that long-probiscid flies pollinate it. Sunbirds were frequently seen visiting the flowers and the sturdy woody stem serves as a good perch for them when feeding. Seeds are shaken out of the ripe capsules by wind and scattered near the parent plant.

Uses and cultural aspects
Erica blenna var. grandiflora is one of the most beautiful and unusual of ericas and a rewarding plant to grow provided it is given the right conditions.

Image of E. blenna var. grandiflora Photo: Plantweb
© Plantweb

Growing Erica blenna var. grandiflora

This species should rather be grown as a pot plant where its needs can be better catered for. This means that the pot plant can be placed in a cool, well-lit position and the plant's feeding and watering better controlled.

It can also be planted in gardens where it receives good ventilation, preferably a cool breeze. It does not do as well when planted in isolation where it has shown stress symptoms such as yellowing leaves and dieback of branches. It is recommended that this species be placed in rockeries on sloping ground and planted with other fynbos plants for support and protection. Companion plants may include other ericas, buchus, brunias, and restios.

It is propagated vegetatively by rooting fresh semi-hardwood tip or heel cuttings. Cuttings are rooted in multi-trays on heated benches under mist spray. Cuttings are rooted in autumn or spring in a rooting medium of equal parts bark and polystyrene chips. A semi-hardwood rooting hormone is used to aid the rooting process.

It germinates easily from seed sown in well-drained, acidic, sandy soil and when subjected to smoke treatment. Seed is normally sown from late summer into autumn, i.e. March to May.

The fynbos planting medium is made up of a combination of equal parts composted pine bark or pine needles and river sand. A little (20%) loam may also be added.

Regular pruning is recommended to keep the plants well branched and compact. Plants that are pruned look better, last longer and produce more flowers.

This Erica is adapted to living in poor soils but may be regularly fed with diluted organic liquid or small amounts of organic pellet fertilizers.

References and further reading

  • Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town and Missouri Botanical Garden.
  • Schumann, D. & Kirsten, G. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town.

 

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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
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