Erica verticillata Bergius

Family: Ericaceae
Common Names:
none known
Status: Extinct in the Wild

Erica verticillata at Rondevlei

See update on this plant dated February 2013

How could a plant as hardy and strikingly beautiful as Erica verticillata have been allowed to reach the precipice of extinction? Fortunately the story of Erica verticillata is a heartening tale of successful ex situ conservation. It has managed to claw its way back to become one of the most popular ericas in cultivation.

This species occurred naturally on the Cape flats of the Cape Peninsula. It preferred damp sandy soils such as those found around Wynberg, Kenilworth and Zeekoeivlei where agriculture and urban development wiped out its natural populations.

Specimens of this erica were last collected from habitat during the late nineteenth and first years of the twentieth century. The latest herbarium record is 1943, from plants grown at Kirstenbosch. We may therefore assume that Erica verticillata became extinct in the wild at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Then during the 1980's Deon Kotze, erica horticulturist at Kirstenbosch, began a concerted search amongst the remnants of lowland fynbos on the Peninsula. His research included making photocopies of herbarium sheets. The Kirstenbosch scholar in 1984, David von Well, recognised the plant from these sheets as being the same as an erica growing at Protea Park in Pretoria. Samples were collected and sent to Ted Oliver at the Compton Herbarium who confirmed it to be Erica verticillata. In the same year another plant was recognised at Kew and material of both brought into cultivation at Kirstenbosch.

A few years later Adonis Adonis, a foreman at Kirstenbosch, found a mature plant growing in a clearing in the forest behind the Braille Trail. All these clones have been successfully propagated from cuttings and sold from the Kirstenbosch Garden Shop and at the Plant Fair. Ted Oliver is in the process of getting material of another specimen that has been grown in one of the gardens of Europe since the mid nineteenth century.

Kirstenbosch form
Kirstenbosch form
Pretoria form
Pretoria form
Kew form
Kew Form

Erica verticillata is a handsome, strong growing, hardy shrub reaching a height of 1.5m tall. Mauve-pink tubular flowers are produced near the tips of the sturdy branches. These are arranged in neat stepped whorls that form attractive flower heads during late summer to autumn. The flowers are very showy and attract sunbirds.

Growing Erica verticillata

Erica verticillata is one of the easiest ericas to grow. Plants are reproduced from cuttings at Kirstenbosch to keep the three forms separate. The plants do not readily produce seed in the gardens or at Rondevlei where they were reintroduced a few years ago.

Plants are rooted from fresh tip or heel cuttings taken in autumn. They are easily rooted in a medium consisting of equal parts of 6mm milled pine bark and polystyrene chips under mist and on heated benches. Rooting hormones are applied for semi-hardwood cuttings.

Rooted cuttings are planted and established in a well-drained soil mix developed at Kirstenbosch for fynbos plants. The mixture consists of equal parts composted pine bark or pine needles, acidic sand and about 20% loam (top soil). Any well-decomposed compost will be suitable so long as it has been naturally composted with a minimum of additives such as manure. Fresh semi-decomposed compost is not recommended.

Pruning will increase branching and the number of flower bearing stems. Plants should be pruned regularly from an early stage to produce a lovely full shape. Be sure to prune after flowering in order not to cut away new buds.

Ericas should be regularly fed with organic liquid fertilizers (Seagro and Kelpac) or control release fertilizers such as Osmocote or Horticote. Control release fertilisers should be applied sparingly (about 10 granules per plant) to balance growth of foliage versus flower production.

Erica verticillata performs best when planted in a well-ventilated warm sunny position. It likes seasonally moist sandy soils, but will grow well in average garden conditions provided the soils are acidic. The best time to plant is in autumn or during the winter although they may be planted at other times of the year if regularly watered. Place in a pre prepared hole with as little disturbance to the root zone as possible. Fill in with the surrounding soil and add pine compost if available. Leave a basin around the plant to help collect water. Mulching is strongly recommended as it keeps the soil surface cool and damp and reduces weed growth.

Plants should be well watered after planting and then every two to three days unless good rainfalls occur. Deep watering encourages the roots to penetrate deeper into the soil, which helps the plant survive the hot dry weather in summer.

Anthony Hitchcock

Adamson, R.S. and Salter, T.M., 1950. Flora of the Cape Peninsula, Juta & Co., Ltd., Cape Town and Johannesburg
Goldblatt, Peter and Manning, John, 2000. Cape Plants A Conspectus of the Cape Flora of South Africa, published jointly by National Botanical Institute and Missouri Botanical Garden
Oliver, I & E.G.H., 2000. Field Guide to the Ericas of the Cape Peninsula, publ. by Protea Atlas Project, National Botanical Institute, Cape Town
Schumann, Dolf, Kirsten, Gerard and Oliver, E.G.H., 1992. Ericas of South Africa, Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg, Cape Town
Flora Capensis Vol.IV Sect.I 1909. Lovell Reeve, London
E.G.H. Oliver - personal communication
Mr Dalton Gibbs - Reserve Manager, Rondevlei - personal communication

Anthony Hitchcock
March 2001

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