Erica hirtiflora is a beautiful shrub with masses of purple-pink flowers in summer and autumn; it adds an elegant touch to the garden.
Erica hirtiflora is an upright, bushy, lax shrub, 0.5-1.0 m tall. The leaves are small and needle-like, usually in whorls of four. The flowers are 30-40 mm long, purple-pink, egg-shaped with a constricted mouth and covered in fine hairs. The sepals are greenish. When it is in flower, the whole bush turns purple-pink as the flowers are borne all over the branches and side branches. It flowers almost all year round with a peak during summer to autumn (Jan.-Apr.). The seeds are very small and difficult to harvest.
Erica hirtiflora is not threatened as yet, although if we do not look after our natural heritage, it may become so in future.
Distribution and habitat
Erica hirtiflora is one of the species that is indigenous to the Cape Peninsula and can be seen on the slopes above Kirstenbosch where it is common, turning the montain slopes purple-pink during its flowering season. It occurs from Malmesbury to the Peninsula to Caledon, Riviersonderend and Swellendam. It is usually found growing on slightly moist slopes and in marshy places.
Ericas occur from the Cape Peninsula right through Africa and they are also found in Madagascar and Europe. Ericas do not grow in the dry Karoo area and they are not often found growing on south-facing slopes.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The species name hirtiflora means hairy flowers and is derived from the Latin word, hirtus, which means hairy or covered with hair, and floris, which means flower, describing the corolla, which is covered in millions of fine hairs. The name actually describes this species very well although it is by no means the only erica with hairy flowers.
Erica hirtiflora belongs in the family Ericaceae. The genus Erica is one of the largest in the Cape Peninsula, where 104 species occur. There are ± 860 species of Erica in southern Africa, which makes it the largest genus in South Africa. In Europe, 21 species of Erica have been recorded. Ericas are also known as heaths, or heide in Afrikaans.
Erica hirtiflora was featured in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, vol. XIV in 1800. This species was named by Curtis himself. At that time it was regarded as a variety of Erica pubescens, and Curtis recognized that they were two distinct species and he defined Erica hirtiflora as a new species. E. hirtiflora is a larger, bushier plant and is more strongly haired on its stalks, leaves and flowers than E. pubescens. He called E. hirtiflora the Rough-Flowered Heath and E. pubescens the Downy-Flowered Heath and illustrated both of them; E. hirtiflora, plate 481, in June and E. pubescens, plate 480, in May 1800.
The shape of the flowers of Erica hirtiflora indicates that it is pollinated by insects, probably bees. The seeds are dispersed after the flowers have dried out, the tiny seeds fall out of the flowers and are scattered around the parent plant. To harvest seeds, it is best to collect them while they are still in the flowers, just before they are released, as it is very difficult to collect these seeds from the ground because they are too small to find between the soil granules.
Uses and cultural aspects
Erica hirtiflora is not used medicinally, it is grown as a decorative garden plant and used as a cutflower.
Growing Erica hirtiflora
Like most ericas, Erica hirtiflora should be grown in a sunny open area where there is good air circulation. The soil should be acidic (pH 5 to 6.5) and well drained (sandy). Keep the roots cool by mulching around the root area of the plant. Water the plants regularly and use fertilizers low in phosphates. Prune plants regularly to give them a good shape and improve flowering, and while you are busy pruning, also remove any scarred, diseased material. You also have to make sure that you don't disturb roots because this can be detrimental to the plant. Never plant them in a position where it will get too hot, such as a hot, northwest-facing slope.
Erica hirtiflora can be propagated by cuttings or from seed.
Take cuttings from plants that are healthy, disease-free and growing vigorously. Make 30-40 mm long, semi-hardwood tip or heel cuttings in late summer to autumn. Treat them with a rooting hormone for semi-hardwood cuttings. Place in a well-aerated rooting medium such as one consisting of 50% bark and 50% crushed pine bark. Place the cuttings in a mist unit with bottom heating between 22-24°C. Once they have rooted, pot the cuttings in a fynbos medium and water them well. Keep the cuttings in a lightly shaded area for at least a month. Within three to four months the cuttings are ready to be planted out.
Sow Erica seed in autumn (April-May). Use trays no deeper than 10 cm. The medium must be acidic, well-drained and should be level so that germination is even; this will prevent damping off. Before seeds are sown, the seed should be treated with smoke seed primer. Smoke treatment will improve germination. It is also wise to water the trays before sowing.
After sowing, cover the seeds with a fine layer of the sowing medium and water well. Always make sure that you water with a fine rose, large droplets will displace the seeds. Keep the trays out of direct sunlight and rain. Ventilation must be good. Germination takes 1-2 months. After the seedlings have reached a height of 10 mm, put them under a shade cloth to start hardening off. When the seedlings have reached 20-50 mm, they are ready to be pricked out or to be planted into a bed but keep them under light shading. After the seedlings have established themselves, remove the shade cloth.
References and further reading
- Brown, N. & Duncan, G. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Curtis, W. 1800. The Botanical Magazine; or, Flower-garden displayed: in which the most ornamental foreign plants, cultivated in the open ground, the green-house, and the stove, are accurately represented in their natural colours. Vol. XIV, Plate 481. Digitized by Google.
- Maytham Kidd, M. 1983. Cape Peninsula. South African Wild Flower Guide 3, new edn. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
- Oliver, I.& Oliver, T. 2000. Field guide to the ericas of the Cape Peninsula. Protea Atlas Project, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Schumann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Cape Town.
- Trinder-Smith, T. 2006. Wild flowers of the Table Mountain National Park. South African Wild Flower Guide 12. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
Natacha Williams & Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden