Erica annectens Guthrie & Bolus
Common names: cliff-hanger heath
This late summer flowering erica is only found on the Cape Peninsula.
‘Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower.’ ~Alan C. Kay.
Erica annectens is an erect to spreading, perennial, dwarf shrub usually about 0.6 m tall, but can reach 1.0–1.5 m in height. The rambling branches are stout and rigid, with leaves 4–6-nate. The flowers are produced in fours at the ends of lateral branches, forming one or more whorls around the stem. The corolla is 20–24 mm long, tubular, curved and glabrous, i.e. smooth and without hairs. The corolla is orange to pale red, paler below with spreading paler lobes. Anthers are dark-coloured and muticous, i.e. blunt, lacking an awn or point, and are just visible at the mouth of the corolla tube. The style is smooth, as is the ovary, which is wider than it is long. E. annectens flowers in mid-summer, from December to February.
In the field Erica annectens may be confused with E. quadrisulcata (orange rock-heath) which has 4–12 golden-orange flowers at the ends of main branches, of similar shape and size also flowering in mid-summer, but the flowers do not have paler tips. E. annectens is most closely related to E. pinea (pine-leaf heath) which has white or yellow, tubular flowers, flowering at the same time of the year, but it does not occur on the Peninsula and it has more spreading and blunter leaves, and smaller, differently set and shaped anthers.
As South Africans we are custodians of the world’s richest temperate flora. We can say this confidently because of the 370 000 species of mosses, ferns and seed plants currently estimated to exist on our planet, 20 456 species are recorded here. Of this number 65% (13 256 species) occur nowhere else in the world. This is astounding when you consider that South Africa only accounts for 2.5% of the world’s land surface! So, what we have is precious.
One of the many species exemplifying this precious condition is Erica annectens. According to the Red List of South African Plants (Raimondo et al. 2009 ), E. annectens is listed as VU (Vulnerable) as it is a rare, highly localized habitat specialist found nowhere else in the world except on rocky slopes of the Cape Peninsula, Noordhoek to Simon's Town.
But, what does ‘Vulnerable’ actually mean? Raimondo et al. (2009) explain that, ‘A species is Vulnerable when the best available evidence indicates that it meets at least one of the five IUCN criteria for Vulnerable, indicating that the species is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.’ See http://redlist.sanbi.org/redcat.php for a detailed description of the five Red List categories.
Erica annectens is listed as VU D2. This means that the area that this species physically occupies is either < 20 km² or the number of known localities is ≤ 5. There is, therefore, a real and probable future threat that could drive this species to CRITICAL or EXINCT in a very short time. What is this threat? E. annectens is threatened by competition from alien invasive plants on Noordhoek Mountain, at Silvermine and the Swartkop Mountains well as by too frequent fires on Muizenberg Mountain.
Distribution and habitat
The genus Erica contains a total of 860 species and these may be found growing from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost tip of Norway. Of these 860 species, South Africa is home to 760, with the highest concentration occurring in the Caledon District, where more than 235 species occur within 4 500 square kilometers (Schumann et al. 1992). Erica annectens is endemic to the Cape Peninsula growing on steep, moist, peaty rock ledges and cliff faces from Noordhoek to Simon's Town.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
What is an erica? In the field, it is said, that the one major character to look for are the small, narrow, folded leaves, described as ‘ericoid’
Dating back to the time of the ancient Greek civilization when Theophrastus and Pliny walked the earth, you would have heard them use the term erike as they described the heath-like shrubs around them. In 458 BC, Aeschylus wrote a play called Agamemnon in which the fall of Troy is told to have been signaled from the mountain tops by the light of the fires of dried ereika. Ereiko means to break, which may describe the plant’s brittle stems that would easily split with a little force. A number of references, though, suggest that ereiko describes the plant’s ability to break up bladder stones, once an infusion of the leaves was ingested (Hyam & Pankhurst 1995). Ericaceae (heath family) is a worldwide floral family consisting of about 116 genera and approximately 3 000 species of shrubs, climbers, herbs and even a few trees. Erica is the largest genus within this family. The specific epithet annectens, means hanging or clinging, which refers to the natural habitat, and habit, of this species.
Fynbos ecology is absolutely mind-blowing! Nutrient-poor soils, hot dry summers alternating with cool wet winters, recurrent fires and an elaborate web of animal-plant interactions have created an ancient vegetation type with a complex ecology, a delicate balance and an explosive diversity. Ericas are one of the four main constituents of this vegetation type—bulbs, proteas and restios being the other three.
Erica annectens is an example of an endemic species and it is a habitat specialist. What does this mean?
A ‘generalist’ is an organism that is able to thrive under a wide variety of conditions, because it is able to adapt to different conditions rapidly. These organisms are able to obtain what they need to survive (e.g. shelter, water, nutrients) from a variety of places, and should their environment change they will simply change with it. Everything about a ‘specialist’, from its biology, anatomy, ecology etc., is designed to access particular resources under particular conditions. Specialists, therefore, are experts at what they do but to their own detriment. If their environment changes (perhaps their environment gets hotter or, in the case of animals, the particular plant that they eat disappears, for example) that species will most likely become extinct. So, Erica annectens is good at what it does. It’s a low-growing cliff dweller found at high altitudes on the rocky mountains of the Cape. But, it is difficult to predict what will happen to it if its environment changes or is damaged.
A species is described as an ‘endemic’ when it is unique to a particular geographic location, e.g. this species can only be found on the Cape Peninsula and nowhere else in the world. A ‘narrow endemic’ is even more restricted. Not only confined to a specific geographic region, this species can only be found on a particular soil type and/or habitat e.g. the south-facing slope of a particular ravine between 100–200 m above sea level, under rocks. Endemic species are also at risk when their environment changes because they have adapted to a very particular suite of conditions and have a small population size over a small area.
Erica annectens is most likely pollinated by sunbirds.
Growing Erica annectens
Simply because they are absolutely stunning, or perhaps to help preserve some of the many species threatened with extinction, you have decided to grow some ericas. Growing ericas is not difficult in the winter-rainfall region, because the natural climate and the soils of this area allow for a great variety of species to be grown successfully. Of the 760 species of Erica, 50 have good garden potential, but it is still up to you to carefully consider the growing requirements of each species and the particular conditions present in your garden. In the summer-rainfall region, the rule of thumb is to ensure that the species you ‘have your eyes on’, is known to be suitable for the conditions ruling there. Ericas grow well in pots, so, when a sunny spot with good air circulation and no cold winds is difficult to find, plant them in an attractive container and move it around as conditions change.
Like all Erica species, E. annectens may be grown from seed or cuttings, however, cuttings are easier and faster to grow and produce plants that are far more robust. Plants grown from cuttings can also be transplanted within six months, as opposed to a year for seed-grown plants, and they will flower a year earlier (Schumann et al. 1992). Considering the rarity of this species, however, seeds are likely to be your only option for propagation—regard it as a challenge!
Seed can be purchased from a number of sources, one of which is the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. If you already have a plant, you should harvest seed just as the flowers start to fall naturally. The old flowers should be dried and then rubbed through a sieve. Sow seed between March and May in a seed tray not less than 100 mm deep. Seed may be soaked in a commercial smoke seed primer for 24 hours before sowing and then dried off. The seed tray, evenly filled with a well-drained acidic medium, should be well watered with a fine rose prior to sowing. Sow seed evenly and cover with a fine layer of the sieved growing medium. Water gently with a fine rose and keep out of direct sunlight and rain in an area with good air circulation. Germination occurs within 1–2 months. When the seedlings are about 10 mm tall place the tray under light shade conditions until October–December. When 20–50 mm tall, prick out and plant in a fynbos potting medium (seven parts sand and three parts sifted humus). Place in light shade and water well. Once established, shading is not required.
Take 40–50 mm cuttings from semi-hard wood, two months after flowering, from healthy mature plants. Heel and stem cuttings work best. Remove the leaves from the lower ⅓ of the cutting, dip into a rooting hormone and place into a tray filled with 50% peat, or crushed pine bark, and 50% polystyrene. Bottom heating between 22–24°C is applied, and once cuttings are rooted they are potted up into ½ litre plastic bags. Young cuttings must be watered well and kept under shade for a month, after which they are placed into full sun. After 3–4 months, plant out.
Soil is a sensitive issue. The potting medium should be well drained and acidic, containing no manure, and have low levels of phosphate. A well-drained sandy loam with a pH between 5 and 5.5, containing about 50% humus is ideal (Brown & Duncan 2006). Ericas grow better when planted close together with other fynbos plants to form dense stands that cover the ground. This species is ideally suited to rockeries or sloping ground, but well-drained level areas will work as well. Before planting dig in some well rotted pine bark.
- Baker, H.A. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1967. Ericas in southern Africa. Purnell & Sons, Cape Town.
- Brown, N.A.C. & Duncan, G.D. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Hyam, R. & Pankhurst, R. 1995. Plants and their names. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Department, Cape Town.
- Oliver, T. (E.G.H.) & Oliver, I. 2000. Ericas of the Cape Peninsula. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Schumann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
MSBP Cape, Kirstenbosch NBG
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Late Summer
Flower colour: Red, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average