Syncarpha recurvata

(L.f.) B.Nord. (= Helichrysum recurvatum (L.f.) Thunb.)

Family :Asteraceae
Common names : there are no common names known for Syncarpha recurvata, but Syncarpha species in general are known as “ sewejaartjies ” (little seven-years) in Afrikaans, indicating that the flowers last for a long time, and echoing the English common name, everlasting which is applied to many different species that last well as dried ornamental cut-flowers.

Fresh everlasting flowerhead
©G.A. Verboom.

Syncarpha recurvata is a small, shrubby daisy with pretty pink flowerheads and attractive silvery foliage. This low shrub is endemic to a small area in the Eastern Cape. Unfortunately, its habitat is under threat and this beautiful little everlasting is fast losing the only places where it can exist naturally.

The plant is a low, well-branched shrub that forms small bushes in scrub on calcareous ridges. Stems are robust and about 120–300 mm high. The leaves are narrow and green and are curved backwards and covered in silky hairs, giving them a silvery appearance.

Stem with leaves
©G.A. Verboom.

During the flowering period the bushes are topped by small but striking hemispherical flowerheads. The flowers are tiny and yellow and are borne in rounded heads surrounded by dry, shiny, spreading pink bracts that become silvery with age. Each plant produces a fairly large number of flowerheads, forming an attractive display. The main flowering period appears to be early summer, but plants can be found in flower in April and other months.

Plant in flower
©G.A. Verboom.

Conservation status
This species is listed as Endangered according to the SANBI Red List ( . At the time of assessment, eight severely fragmented subpopulations were thought to remain, and these were in decline due to calcrete mining for cement production, urban expansion and alien plant invasion. Exploitation as everlasting cut-flowers may also pose a threat in populations that are easily accessible.

Conservation through relocation is the focus of ongoing studies by E.E.Campbell and students at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Distribution and habitat
Syncarpha recurvata occurs in low-lying areas (from sea level up to 200 m altitude) in the Bontveld of the Eastern Cape. This vegetation covers only 500 km 2 and consists of a mosaic of bushclumps and grassveld. Within the Bontveld, S. recurvata is confined to shallow calcareous sands on calcrete ridges.

Distribution map

The climate in this area is oceanic, with mild cool winters and warm summers, and some degree of humidity. The temperature range is small, and so the plant might not tolerate frost. In addition, in its natural habitat S. recurvata does not experience a dry season, as precipitation is distributed throughout the year. Rainfall is, however, greater and more frequent during the winter months.

Growing in habitat
©G.A. Verboom.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Syncarpha is a genus of 28 species endemic to the Cape Floristic Region. In Greek, syn means united and carphos , any small dry body; it is thought that the generic name might refer to the dry bracts which are united into a cone-like structure surrounding the flowerheads. The specific name, recurvata , refers to the leaves which are bent backwards (recurved). Several Syncarpha species are very showy and are attractive horticultural plants in indigenous gardens (for example, S. argentea and S. vestita ). S. eximia (strawberry everlasting) is not cultivated but is an extremely striking member of the genus . S. vestita is known as ‘Cape snow' and is a popular nature photography subject.

Little is known of the ecological interactions of Syncarpha recurvata . The beautiful flowerheads are likely to play a role in attracting an animal pollinator, but no record exists of who this pollinator might be.

Syncarpha seeds (called achenes or cypselae) are small and light and bear a crown of feathery hairs (called a pappus ) which is likely to aid in wind dispersal.

Syncarpha recurvata is highly specialized on a unique soil type which consists of ancient marine sediments compacted to form soft calcrete. This habitat-specificity is likely to be one of the factors that limits its distribution range, confining it to small areas where this soil type is exposed.

Uses and cultural aspects
The flowerheads of Syncarpha recurvata are exceptionally attractive and are commonly used as ornamental cut-flowers by members of the public. Since the colourful parts of the flowerhead consist of dry, papery bracts, they make good everlasting displays together with dried grasses.

Mature head
©G.A. Verboom.

Growing Syncarpha recurvata

This plant is likely to make an extremely attractive high groundcover or border in lime-rich areas or special calcareous-soil sections of the garden. Alternatively, it could be grown in pots containing a mixture of calcareous soil and peat.

Although it is not currently in horticultural use, the propagation of S. recurvata has been investigated in order to attempt ex situ conservation (Swart 2006). Several propagation methods are successful, including plant tissue culture. In all instances, care should be taken to protect plants from fungal attack.

The plants can be propagated from seed, although germination success is generally low (around 20 %). Success is enhanced by choosing mature achenes harvested under dry conditions and at the correct time of year, probably early summer, although more research is needed to determine the best time. Seeds should be stored for several months to allow after-ripening, before attempting to germinate them. The following protocol was suggested by Swart (2006): prepare a 1:100 smoke water dilution using freshly-boiled water. Soak the achenes in this smoke water, then place them in trays containing a freshly-prepared 2:1 mixture of calcareous soil (the study used soil collected from the native habitat) and peat that has been moistened with the still-warm smoke water. Cover the achenes with a light sprinkling of powdered, dry calcareous native soil, then spray with a light mist from a spray bottle filled with the smoke water. Germination takes between 10 and 50 days.

Stem cuttings and air layering can also be used to propagate S. recurvata . The species was shown to readily produce roots from cuttings or air-layered shoots under physically and chemically controlled conditions, although rooting success was only 50 % after four weeks in the study by Swart (2006). Take cuttings of 100 mm length from the stems of healthy plants. Remove the leaves from the lower 20 mm of the cutting and treat with ‘Seradix© no. 1' rooting hormone. Propagation should make use of calcareous soil, as the plant dies in ordinary garden soil (Swart 2006), so plant out the cuttings in a 1:1 mixture of calcareous soil and peat. Keep cuttings in a well aerated and cool site and irrigate no more than twice per day to prevent over-watering. Some level of shading is likely to promote rooting

References and further reading

  • Swart, P.A. 2006. Horticultural propagation of the threatened species, Syncarpha recurvata (L.f.) B.Nord. Unpublished MSc. thesis, Faculty of Science, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
  • Trinder-Smith, T.H. 2003. The Levyns Guide to the plant genera of the Southwestern Cape. Contributions from the Bolus Herbarium No. 21.


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All photographs taken by G.A. Verboom.









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