Erica cerinthoides L.
Common names: fire erica, fire heath, red hairy heath, rooihaartjie, klipheide
Erica cerinthoides is an extremely variable species over its distribution range. It varies particularly in growth habit, hairiness of leaves and flowers, and in size, shape and colour of its flowers.
Most of the differences are found in the summer rainfall region resulting in the recognition of a separate variety Erica cerinthoides var. barbertona, which has short flower tubes.
A white flowering form has also been recorded from Mpumalanga and Swaziland.
Erica cerinthoides is one of a few ericas that resprout from a woody rootstock after fire. The result is the production of clusters of lovely inflated, tubular, red flowers at the ends of short branches, which form neat, colourful shrublets in a bleak burnt landscape. Fire thus keeps this plant in good healthy condition and will stimulate flowering at any time of the year. After a number of years they will grow taller, become straggly and produce fewer flowers.
Plants from the southern Cape are known to grow taller than those from other areas. They have been recorded to grow over 1.5m tall if they are not burnt. These specimens may become very woody and devoid of foliage save for at the very ends of their branches where a few leaves and depauperate flowers may be found.
Distribution and habitat
Erica cerinthoides is the most widely distributed of the heaths in southern Africa. It occurs from the Cedarberg Mountains in the Western Cape, though the Eastern Cape, Transkei, Natal Drakensberg, into Mpumalanga, Lesotho, Swaziland, and as far north as the Soutpansberg in the Northern Province. It is found in different habitats in the Cape where it grows from the coastal plains to the mountain tops.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Erica cerinthoides is named after the genus Cerinthe, the honey wort, because of the similarity of the flowers and their arrangement. Francis Masson first introduced Erica cerinthoides into cultivation in England, and it featured in the Botanical Magazine in 1794. It was a favourite species in cultivation at that time, but is seldom seen in cultivation these days.
Their ability to survive and respond to fire and to freely produce seed is a major factor in their success as a survivor of adverse growing conditions.
Growing Erica cerinthoides
Any plant with such a wide distribution has distinct advantages over those confined to a narrow range. Erica cerinthoides is a tough, well tempered plant that grows easily in different parts of South Africa, and may be expected to survive for a long time in the garden. They require well drained acidic soils (ideal pH between 5.5 and 6.7), and a sunny position. They are suitable for flat beds, or rockeries and do very well in containers where they can be kept compact and well shaped by pruning after flowering. Erica cerinthoides is not hardy to severe frost, but should resprout if damaged by frost. The showy red flowers will attract bird pollinators to the garden.
Feeding is essential for the maintenance of good healthy plants and active plant growth. Regular applications of organic seaweed derived fertilizer will give good results without causing damage to the plants or losses. Controlled release fertilizers such as osmocote or horticote, which release food on warm days in the presence of water, have proved very effective providing that they are low in phosphates and not too much fertilizer is applied to the medium. Follow instructions provided with the product or apply twenty or thirty granules per plant in autumn and spring. Kelpac is also very useful as a stimulant of root growth and for relief of stress caused by heat stress or root disturbance.
Erica cerinthoides is easily grown from seed or cuttings. Seed is sown in autumn and seed that has been treated with the “Instant Smoke Plus Seed Primer” smoke extract show improved germination. A suitable sowing medium consists of two parts acidic river sand : two parts composted pine bark : one part loam. Seedlings germinate after six weeks and are delicate in their early stages. Particular care should be taken to water gently and to protect the seedlings from direct sunlight. Seedlings may be planted out into individual bags or pots once they have grown to a height of at least 1 cm, but only planted out in the garden once they have grown to about 10 cm. Planting should preferably be done in autumn or winter, but they may be planted at other times of the year providing that they are well cared for and watered during the hot months.
Vegetative propagation should be done using proper rooting facilities, i.e. overhead misting and heating from below. These facilities are unfortunately not available to most amateur growers. The best time to root cuttings is in autumn or spring. Fresh actively growing thin shoots taken as heel cuttings and treated with rooting hormone for semi-hardwood material give best results. Roots may develop after eight weeks and are very fine and delicate. Rooted plants should be hardened off away from the mist unit for a few weeks before the cuttings are planted out.
- Baker, H.A. and Oliver, E.G.H. 1967. Ericas in Southern Africa. Purnell, Cape Town and Johannesburg
- Marloth, Rudolf 1932. The Flora of South Africa. Vol. 111 Section 1. Darker Bros. & Co. Cape Town: Wheldon & Wesley, Ltd. London
- Schumann, D (Dolf) & Kirsten, G (Gerard). 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg Cape Town
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Clay
Flowering season: Sporadic/All year
Flower colour: Red, White, Orange
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy