Phylica ericoides is a tough but decorative little shrub with dark green foliage and masses of showy white flower heads during autumn-winter, perfect for water-wise and fynbos gardens, especially those on the sandy flats, and is also a long-lasting and versatile cut flower.
Phylica ericoides (var. ericoides ) is a much-branched, compact, bushy evergreen shrub usually reaching 0.6 m with equal spread but older bushes left to their own devices can reach 1 m. Branches are slender with a sparse covering of short, fine, grey hairs. Leaves are lance-shaped to linear, obtuse or nearly acute, and rounded or heart-shaped at the base, 5-8 mm long, closely set, alternate, simple and have a short petiole. The margins are rolled under (revolute) so that they almost cover the entire lower leaf surface. The upper surface is often rough and usually hairless, or the margin and midrib are sparsely hairy when young. The undersurface is covered with short, fine grey hairs.
You need good eyesight, and a hand lens or dissecting microscope to examine phylica flowers. The flowers are very small, 1.5-2 mm long, tightly packed into 4-7 mm wide rounded heads (capitula) at the tips of the branches. The heads are solitary or clustered. Each tiny flower is broadly cup-shaped, and is made up of a ± 0.5 mm deep, hairless calyx tube, ± 0.75 mm long sepals the outer surface of which is densely covered with coarse, curly white hairs, and tiny 0.5 mm long petals inserted on the upper half of the calyx tube. Each flower also has bracts, those of the outer flowers are leaf-like and surround the capitulum, whereas those of the inner flowers are 1 mm long and densely hairy. Look closely at a flower head and you can see yellowish green, star-like 'holes' in amongst the whiteness-those are the freshly opened flowers. The older flowers turn brown on the inside as they close up again. Flowers are produced at any time of the year. At Kirstenbosch, they flower mainly during late summer-autumn-winter (Feb. to June). The flowers have a fairly strong honey scent. The fruit is a ± 4 mm long, obovate, hairless purple-brown capsule with a small depressed area on top, splitting explosively to release smooth seeds with an aril at the base.
Phylica ericoides is divided into five varieties based on a number of characteristics. Some, e.g. the variations in their minute petals, are impossible to observe with the naked eye, but they can also be told apart by their size or flower size and by their geographic distribution.
var. ericoides: as described above.
var. montana Pillans: from Sir Lowy's Pass in the Stellenbosch District with slender upper branches, longer, more linear leaves and the whole plant is about two thirds of the size of var. ericoides.
var. muirii Pillans: from the Riversdale District where the plants are smaller (up to 0.35 m), with slender pubescent branchlets, and smaller leaves (3-5 mm).
var. pauciflora Pillans: from the Bredasdorp District where plants are about 0.4 m tall, have very slender branches and small (5 mm long) linear leaves, and smaller flower heads (2.5-3 mm wide) made up of smaller (1.5-1.75 mm long) flowers.
var. zeyheri Pillans: from the Caledon District where the leaves are rounded at the base with a sharp apex and the individual flowers are larger (2-2.5 mm long).
Phylica ericoides is not listed on the SANBI Interim Red List Jan 2007.
Distribution and habitat
Phylica ericoides is widespread, it occurs on coastal slopes, dunes and deep sands from Saldanha to Paarl and the Cape Peninsula, to Port Elizabeth and into southern tropical Africa.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name of the genus Phylica is from the Greek phyllikos meaning leafy, referring to the densely leafy stems of most of the plants in this genus. The species name ericoides means resembling the genus Erica, commonly known as heaths or heathers. Like many fynbos species, Phylica ericoides does not have a generally accepted common name. It is either referred to by its full botanical name, or, because the species are quite similar, they are often, confusingly, all referred to as phylica or hardebos without any distinguishing descriptive prefix. If one is uncomfortable with the botanical name, it can be translated into English (which is not much different in this case) as ericoid phylica or heath-like phylica or more simply heath phylica. I have seen phylicas called Cape myrtle in the UK and USA, which is very confusing for South Africans, because we know Myrsine africana as the Cape myrtle.
Phylica is a genus of ± 188 species of shrubs and small trees confined to Africa south of the Equator and to a few islands in the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Most of them are found in the southwestern corner of South Africa in the Western Cape and Northern Cape where they are often restricted to small areas. The rest occur on the Drakensberg in the Free State, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and into Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Gauteng and North-West, and on Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, New Amsterdam, St Helena and the Tristan da Cunha group of islands. A few species can be found in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. The phylica that is probably most well known to gardeners is Phylica pubescens, the featherbush or veerkoppie.
Phylica belongs in the Rhamnaceae, a family of ± 58 genera and 900 species spread throughout the tropical and subtropical parts of the world with nine genera and 203 species in southern Africa. Other southern African genera that gardeners may be familiar with include Rhamnus, Ziziphus, Berchemia and Scutia.
Phylica ericoides was featured in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1793, plate no. 224. Curtis calls it the heath-leaved phylica, and writes that Miller cultivated the plant figured in 1731, calling it a 'common and long-established inhabitant of the greenhouse'. He also told him that it grows wild around Lisbon covering large tracts of ground in the same manner that heaths do in Britain-but he was sadly mistaken about its origin.
Phylica ericoides is killed by fire but survives by seedlings that germinate after the fire from seed that accumulates in the soil. It is also very drought-tolerant-the small leaves with rolled under margins and hairy undersurfaces help the plant to survive and thrive in a dry, windy environment. Being small reduces the surface area from which water can be lost. The rolled under leaf margin and hairy undersurface insulate the leaf and create a water vapour trap that keeps the humidity high right at the leaf surface so that the cells are fooled into not releasing water and the plant can keep its stomata open, even during dry and windy weather, and continues to take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. It can thus continue normal growth and maintenance under harsh environmental conditions.
At Kirstenbosch the flowers are visited by beetles, bees and butterflies.
Uses and cultural aspects
Phylica ericoides is excellent for floristry, and is used mainly as a filler. In the cut flower trade it is sold as a 'Cape Green' and is called white phylica, to distinguish it from P. pubescens that they call green phylica.
Growing Phylica ericoides
Phylica ericoides is a rewarding and easy plant in the garden and is particularly suited to gardens on the sandy coastal areas in the Western and Eastern Cape where it needs little care or extra attention once it is established. It is drought- and wind-tolerant forming a neat, ground-hugging, dense, evergreen bush with a minimum of care and attention.
Grow it in a sunny position in well-drained, sandy soil. When planting it in a water-wise garden in the winter rainfall area, plant it during the autumn (Mar.-Apr.) so that it can settle in during the winter and it will be strong enough to survive the coming summer. Phylica ericoides should survive relatively cold conditions and may be hardy to Zone 9 (-7 to -1° C / 20 to 30° F). After 8-10 years it can start to look a bit sparse and should be replaced.
Phylica ericoides can be propagated by seed and by cuttings. Seed is best sown in autumn, in well-drained soil, and germination takes ± three weeks. The bushes don't seed prolifically at Kirstenbosch, and the explosive dispersal mechanism makes it tricky to harvest. Either harvest just before they ripen when the capsules are still closed and allow them to ripen and open in the drying room-remember to cover the tray or the seed will be dispersed throughout the room!-or cover the fruiting branches with gauze (on the bush) to catch the seed. At Kirstenbosch (Trevor Adams pers. comm.) we rely primarily on propagation by cuttings. Semi-hardwood tip or heel cuttings are taken in spring-summer from new growth produced after flowering and fruiting. Treat with a rooting hormone (e.g. Seradix 2) and place in an overhead-mist unit, with bottom heat of 24-28° C. Rooting occurs in 3 to 4 weeks, the cuttings are given a three-week weaning period and then potted up.
Phylica ericoides is not susceptible to any pests or diseases.
References and further reading
- Bean, A. & Johns, A. 2005. Stellenbosch to Hermanus. South African Wild Flower Guide 5, edn 2. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
- Curtis's Botanical Magazine, Plate no. 224. on line at http://www.nal.usda.gov/curtis/224jpg.shtml
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. U.C.T. Printing Dept., Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Leistner, O. A. 2005. Seed plants of southern tropical Africa : families and genera. Southern African Botanical Diversity Network Report No. 26.
- Pillans, N.S. 1942. The genus Phylica L. Journalof South African Botany 8: 1-164.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
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