The tubular, bright red flowers of Erica nevillei are breathtaking and the low-growing, sprawling habit of this Cape Peninsula endemic will fascinate anyone with a keen eye intrigued by fantastic plants adapted to thrive where most others would perish.
Erica nevillei is a low-growing, semi-sprawling, woody shrub attaining a spread of 1 m and an average height of 40 mm. Flowering from January to May, Erica nevillei's bright red tubular flowers are 20–24 mm long, sticky and are found in dense spike-like heads at the end of the main branches. The bracts and sepals are red-green, small and dotted with glands. The corolla is slightly lens-shaped and has 8 grooves at the base, giving it a nipped-in appearance. Anthers protrude slightly and have tiny appendages on the filaments below the anther. The anther cells are slightly parted. The ericoid leaves occur in dense whorls round the branches in groups of 4–6. Erica nevillei is often confused with Erica quadrisulcata but its flowers are red, the anthers exserted and the inflorescence is not an umbel. It is also easily confused with Erica abietina but its corolla tube is nipped-in at the base and the inflorescence is terminal.
Erica nevillei naked flower
Erica nevillei flowers showing anthers
As South Africans we are custodians of the world's richest temperate flora. We can say this confidently because of the 370 000 species of mosses, ferns and seed plants currently estimated to exist on our planet 20 456 species are recorded here. Of this number 65% (13 256 species) occur nowhere else in the world. This is astounding when you consider that South Africa only accounts for 2.5% of the world's land surface! So, what we have is precious.
One of the many species exemplifying this precious condition is Erica nevillei. According to the Red List of South African Plants (Raimondo et al. 2009) E. nevillei is listed as Rare (R). It is a range-restricted habitat specialist found nowhere else in the world except on rocky slopes of the Cape Peninsula.
But, what does “Rare” actually mean? Raimondo et al. (2009) explain on page 11 that, “A taxon is Rare when it is not exposed to any known direct or plausible potential threat and does not qualify for a category of threat according to the five IUCN criteria, but it meets one or more of the following criteria”:
- Restricted range: Extent of occurrence is less than 500 km².
- Habitat specialist: Taxon is restricted to a highly specialised microhabitat so that it has a very small area of occupancy, typically smaller than 20 km² .
- Low densities of individuals: Taxon always occurs as single individuals or very small populations (typically fewer than 10 mature individuals) scattered over a wide area.
- Small global population of less than 10 000 mature individuals.
Distribution and habitat
The genus Erica contains a total of 860 species and these may be found growing from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost tip of Norway. Of these 860 species, South Africa is home to 760, with the highest concentration occurring in the Caledon District, where more than 235 species occur within 4500 km² (Schumann et al. 1992). Erica nevillei is endemic to the Peninsula growing only on the rocky cliffs near Noordhoek, Chapman's Peak and Constantiaberg.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
What is an erica? In the field, it is said, that the one major character to look for are the small, narrow, folded leaves, described as ‘ericoid'. Dating back to the time of the ancient Greek civilization when Theophrastus and Pliny walked the earth, you would have heard them use the term ‘erike' as they described the heath-like shrubs around them. In 458 BC Aeschylus wrote a play called Agamemnon in which the fall of Troy is told to have been signaled from the mountain tops by the light of the fires of dried ereika. Ereiko means to break, which may describe the plant's brittle stems that would easily split with a little force. A number of references, though, suggest that ereiko describes the plant's ability to break up bladder stones, once an infusion of the leaves was ingested (Hyam & Pankhurst 1995). Ericaceae (Heath family) is a worldwide floral family consisting of about 116 genera and approximately 3000 species of shrubs, climbers, herbs and even a few trees. Erica is the largest genus within this family. “ Nevillei” is derived from the name of the botanist who discovered the plant, Neville Pillans (1883–1964). He worked for the Bolus Herbarium, which was established in 1865 and is the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa. Erica nevillei was Pillans' 4124th contribution to the herbarium.
Fynbos ecology is absolutely mind-blowing! Nutrient-poor soils, hot dry summers alternating with cool wet winters, recurrent fires and an elaborate web of animal-plant interactions have created an ancient vegetation type with a complex ecology, a delicate balance and an explosive diversity. Ericas are one of the four main constituents of this vegetation type — bulbs, proteas and restios being the other three.
Erica nevillei is an example of an endemic species and it is a habitat specialist. What does this mean?
A generalist is an organism that is able to thrive under a wide variety of conditions because it is able to adapt to different conditions rapidly. These organisms are able to get what they need to survive (e.g. shelter, water, nutrients) from a variety of places, and should their environment change they will simply change with it. Everything about a specialist, from its biology, anatomy, ecology etc., is designed to access particular resources under particular conditions. Specialists therefore, are experts at what they do but to their own detriment. If their environment changes (perhaps their environment gets hotter or, in the case of animals, the particular plant that they eat disappears, for example) that species will most likely become extinct. So, Erica nevillei is good at what it does. It's a low-growing cliff dweller found at high altitudes on the rocky mountains of the Cape. But, if its environment changes or is damaged?
A species is described as an endemic when it is unique to a particular geographic location, e.g. it can only be found on the Cape Peninsula and nowhere else in the world. A narrow endemic is even more restricted. Not only confined to a specific geographic region, this species can only be found on a particular soil type and/or habitat e.g. the south-facing slope of a particular ravine between 100–200 m above sea level under rocks. Endemic species are also at risk when their environment changes because they have adapted to a very particular suite of conditions.
Growing Erica nevillei
Simply because they're absolutely stunning, or perhaps to help preserve some of the many species threatened with extinction, you have decided to grow some ericas. Growing ericas is not difficult in the winter rainfall region because the natural climate and the soils of this area allow for a great variety of species to be grown successfully. Of the 760 species of Erica, 50 have good garden potential but it is still up to you to carefully consider the growing requirements of each species and the particular conditions present in your garden. In the summer rainfall region the rule of thumb is to ensure that the species you ‘have your eyes on' is known to be suitable for the conditions ruling there. Ericas grow well in pots, so, when a sunny spot with good air circulation and no cold winds is difficult to find, plant them in an attractive container and move it around as conditions change.
Like all erica species Erica nevillei may be grown from seed or cuttings, however, cuttings are easier and faster to grow and produce plants that are far more robust. Plants grown from cuttings can also be transplanted within six months, as opposed to a year for seed-grown plants, and they will flower a year earlier (Schumann et al. 1992). Considering the rarity of this species, however, seeds are likely to be your only option for propagation—regard it as a challenge!
Seed can be purchased from a number of sources, one of which is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. If you already have a plant, you should harvest seed just as the flowers start to fall naturally. The old flowers should be dried and then rubbed through a sieve. Sow seed between March and May in a seed tray not less than 100 mm deep. Seed may be soaked in a commercial smoke seed primer for 24 hours before sowing and then dried off. The seed tray, evenly filled with the well-drained acidic medium, should be well watered with a fine rose prior to sowing. Sow seed evenly and cover with a fine layer of the sieved growing medium. Water gently with a fine rose and keep out of direct sunlight and rain in an area with good air circulation. Germination occurs within 1–2 months. When the seedlings are about 10 mm tall place the tray under light shade conditions until October–December. When 20–50 mm tall, prick out and plant in a fynbos potting medium (seven parts sand and three parts sifted humus). Place in light shade and water well. Once established, shading is not required.
Take 40–50 mm cuttings from semi-hard wood two months after flowering from healthy mature plants. Heel and stem cuttings work best. Remove the leaves from the lower 1/3 of the cutting, dip into a rooting hormone and place into a tray filled with 50% peat, or crushed pine bark, and 50% polystyrene. Bottom heating between 22–24°C is applied, and once cuttings are rooted they are potted up into ½ liter plastic bags. Young cuttings must be watered well and kept under shade for a month, after which they are placed into full sun. After 3–4 months plant out.
Soil is a sensitive issue. The potting medium should be well drained and acidic, containing no manure, and have low levels of phosphate. A well-drained sandy loam with a pH between 5 and 5.5, containing about 50% humus is ideal (Brown et al. 2006). Ericas grow better when planted close together with other fynbos plants to form dense stands that cover the ground. They grow particularly well in rockeries or sloping ground but level areas will work as well. Before planting dig in some well rotted pine bark.
References and further reading
- Baker, H.A. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1967. Ericas in Southern Africa. Purnell & Sons, Cape Town.
- Brown, N.A.C. & Duncan, G.D. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Hyam, R. & Pankhurst, R. 1995. Plants and their names. Oxford University Press, New York
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Department.
- Oliver, T. (E.G.H.) & Oliver, I. 2000. Ericas of the Cape Peninsula. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Schumann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden