Know Your Fynbos | Ericas: Miniature bells
I defy you not to love Ericas. One of the most exquisite plant genera in the Cape Floral Kingdom, and also the largest, the Erica genus is made up 860 species worldwide, and we are extraordinarily lucky to have 760 of those species here in South Africa (1).
Not just a pretty petal
The charm of Ericas lies in their delicately beautiful, bell or tubular-shaped flowers. The petite florets are so perfectly fashioned you’d be forgiven for thinking they might be artificial! But underlying this dainty exterior is one of the toughest plant species in the Cape Floristic Region. Ericas thrive in well-drained, low-nutrient soils, making them very hardy and drought resistant (an apt gardener’s choice in our water-stressed country).
What to look out for:
Given the many kinds of Erica found across the Cape, individual species identification is a can of worms, but John Manning’s book ‘Field Guide to Fynbos’ is highly helpful in this regard. As a starting point, learn what traits are considered ericaceous – so that you can begin to point out the odd specimen on the mountainside:
- Miniature bells: Ericas’ unmistakable bell or tubular-shaped flowers are a helpful giveaway, but remember that the flowers vary greatly in colour, and especially size. The two types of flora to look out for are the little bells (which are often as tiny as 1-2mm, found in clusters that form a carpet of colour on each shrub), and the tubular-shaped flowers (which are similar to the honeysuckle in shape, and are often a bit larger, still clustered, but with each flower more distinctly defined). Common colours are varying shades of pink, red, orange and white.
- Needle-like leaves: The specially designed-leaves of Ericas are known as ericoid in nature: by having very small, often needle-like, leaves which are rolled or folded downwards, the plants are able to minimise transpiration and retain moisture for long periods. (2)
- Shape: Ericas are evergreen, woody shrubs that vary greatly in size. Some are only a few centimetres high, while others are closer to being small trees.
What you might not know:
- Some of the more common Erica species found on Table Mountain include the shiny, red fire heath (Erica cerinthoides), Erica hirtiflora which turns whole bushes pink with its tiny, hairy blossoms, and the tassel heath (Erica coccinea) or ‘hangertjie’ with its yellow/orange, pendulous tubes.
- The word Erica is derived from the Greek word ereike, which means ‘to break’. It is thought to have been given this name because of the belief that some types of Erica, when imbibed as an infusion, would help break up kidney stones (3).
- Ericas are commonly known as ‘heath’ or ‘heather’. Certain species of heather are also well-known for making magnificent carpets of colour across the Scottish Highlands.
- The long, narrow tubular-shaped Ericas are pollinated by sunbirds, and in some cases, the Long-tongued Fly; while the tiny, bell-shaped flowers are pollinated by other insects and the wind (4).
- Ericas are well-adapted to fire – they have a very hardy and persistent rootstock that has a high propensity to resprout after the effects of fire (5).
- Kirstenbosch has a section of its gardens dedicated exclusively to Ericas. Visit the Erica Garden to work on your ID skills!
1, 2, 4, 5. McMaster C. The widespread Ericas. Farmer’s Weekly [Internet]. 2008 [cited 29 June 2017];:52-53. Available from: http://www.botanicalsociety.org.za/ProjectsAndActivities/Downloadable%20articles/FW23%20Ericas.pdf
- Erica caffra | Plantz Africa [Internet]. Pza.sanbi.org. 2017 [cited 29 June 2017]. Available from: http://pza.sanbi.org/erica-caffra