Erica turgida used to grow on the Cape flats around Rondebosch,
Kenilworth and on the Royal Cape Golf Course in the Wynberg area.
Its habitat was initially destroyed by farming and further reduced
by urban development spreading out from Cape Town. Plant material
was collected by Elsie Esterhuizen in 1970 and established in the
Kirstenbosch Erica collection. The last known populations of this
erica have since disappeared from Kenilworth and this plant is now
regarded as extinct in the wild.
In 2001 while acquiring material of Erica verticillata from
the Schonbrunn Botanical Gardens in Vienna, I discovered that they
also had material of E. turgida. We were very fortunate to
get cuttings of their clone as it is very likely that it was collected
as long ago as the 1790s by botanical collectors Frans Boos and
© Dolf Schumann
Erica turgida is an erect, bushy plant 300-400 mm high, with
slender, willowy and slightly hairy branches. It produces numerous
small urn- or cup-shaped, pink flowers, which are clustered at the
ends of short branchlets. The flowers are only about 3 mm long and
slightly constricted at the mouth from which the anthers protrude.
The overall effect is a petite plant that is rather attractive when
in flower in November and December.
The natural habitat of this plant is acid sandplain fynbos with
fluctuating moisture levels from winter to summer. Erica turgida
came from an area which experiences quite moist conditions during
the winter, in a low-lying area with a high water table. The summers
are, on the other hand, hot, dry and windswept. The pH of the soil
varies from about 4 to 6.
Temperature regimes range from night-time low temperatures averaging
4-8 º C, but dropping occasionally to 0 º with occasional
light frosts. High temperatures can reach into the mid to high 30s
for a few days in high summer. Average temperatures are approximately
8 - 20 º C in winter and 12 - 26 º C in summer.
Accompanying vegetation would have been low and scrubby with small
Cape reeds or restios dominating. Old vegetation would have been
cleared out by periodic fire and re-established through the normal
succession of fast perennials, grasses and bulbs followed by the
emergence of more permanent woody plants such as ericas.
Erica turgida is a re-seeder and therefore depends upon
periodic fire to clear the vegetation and allow new plants to re-colonize
Growing Erica turgida
Erica turgida is easy to grow provided it is
given the right conditions. It can be quite short-lived, lasting
from about eight to ten years before it becomes old and woody or
dies. Regular pruning is recommended for producing good quality
plants and extends the life of the plant. It needs a well-drained,
acidic, sandy soil and a ventilated, sunny position. This species
has been planted in mass at Kirstenbosch, but this can result in
plants passing on infections such as mildew. It is recommended that
E. turgida be spaced apart when planted. This will allow
better ventilation and drying out of the foliage.
Conditions at Kirstenbosch differ from the natural habitat of this
plant even though it is only a few kilometres away. The wetter conditions
at Kirstenbosch (average rainfall 1 400 mm per annum) and the protection
the garden gets from prevailing summer winds, often result in downy
mildew infections. Mildew can be easily controlled by early treatment
with fungicides dedicated to controlling this condition; it can
also be avoided by watering in the early part of the day rather
than in the evening or at night; it has a better chance of taking
hold if the plant is wet for extended periods of time during the
Erica turgida is easy to grow from seed and cuttings. Seed
is sown in autumn in a sandy, well-drained soil mixture. The seed
is pre-treated with smoke to optimize germination, although smoke
treatment is not a prerequisite. Seedlings appear after a few weeks
and should be carefully nurtured until they are about 10 mm tall
and ready for transplanting into individual containers. Keep pinching
out the terminal shoots as this will result in branching and a more
Cuttings are taken in autumn or spring to early summer, from actively
growing shoots preferably as heel cuttings. A heel cutting is a
side shoot that is removed from the main stem while retaining a
part of that stem. Cuttings are placed in a fine bark mix in special
propagation units with heated benches and overhead misters. Rooting
takes place in a few weeks.
In situ conservation
Plans are being formulated to restore plants of Erica turgida
to secure natural areas within the Kenilworth Race Course. Plants
have been propagated and we plan to plant then in selected positions
early next winter. Land management is critical for the survival
of healthy populations, so Nature Conservation is working in conjunction
with botanical conservation experts and horticulturists at Kirstenbosch
to enhance the chance of successful restoration of this species.
Ex situ conservation
Plants of Erica turgida are being propagated every year for planting
in the garden and plants are kept in our rare plant collections
in pots in the nursery. Plant material has also been made available
to the few specialist erica growers to supply the nurseries such
as the Garden Centre at Kirstenbosch.
Seed is also being collected for long-term storage in the Millennium
Seed Bank. This project aims to keep seed for long periods as an
insurance against extinction.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden