Erica nabea Guthrie & Bolus
Common names: sepal heath, MacNab’s heath (Eng.)
This medium sized shrub produces spikes of unusual, greenish flowers from late autumn until the end of winter.
Erica nabea is an evergreen, upright shrub that is sparsely branched and can reach a height of up to ± 1.5 m. The branches are straight, long and slender, the younger branches are covered with short, soft hairs. The older branches form numerous, short, lateral branchlets. The leaves are densely packed, 3-nate, up to 14 mm long, sharply pointed as well as grooved, which is characteristic of the Erica species. Tiny hairs are also noticeable on the leaf margins.
The flowers are presented in spikes and appear on the higher parts of the stems in late autumn and winter (May to August). A unique feature is that the flowers of this plant point upwards or sometimes sideways, which is a different presentation of the flowers than most species of Erica. The corolla is only 3 mm long, whereas the sepals are ± 16 mm long ,which is quite an extraordinary feature for an erica. These long sepals are often erroneously referred to as the petals. The flowers are 3-nate and usually appear in one or two whorls. The small flower is covered with a thin sticky layer and the 4 protruding stamens are very conspicuous. The anthers have no awns (a fine, horn-like appendage near the base of the anther cell).
Erica nabea is not threatened, it has a conservation status of Least Concern (LC).
Distribution and habitat
This plant is a South African endemic and it appears in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. Erica nabea grows naturally on dry to moist soils and is well established on mountain slopes especially in the areas between George and Uitenhage. It grows well in association with Proteaceae and Restionaceae plant species.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Erica is derived from the Greek word ereiko, which means ‘to break’ or ‘tear’; this could refer to the stems of the plant that are not very tough and break or tear easily. Erica nabea is named in honour of William MacNab (1780–1848), who was a curator of the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, and a specialist in propagating and growing ericas.
Erica is regarded as the largest genus of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the south-western tip of South Africa is rich in plant species and contains many more species than any other floral kingdom in the world. The genus Erica comprises of about 860 species and these may be found growing from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost tip of Norway. South Africa is home to about 760 of these species
This plant is a re-seeder, plants will die in a fire but the population survives by seeds stored in the soil seedbank. Seeds of heaths are very small and stay viable for many years in the soil until the ideal conditions allow for germination. Insects were observed visiting the flowers of this plant; they play a vital role in carrying out the pollination process.
Erica nabea is an attractive species and it flowers over a long period. It is suitable to grow in pots, and like most ericas, it can be very successfully grown alongside members of the restio family (Restionaceae) and other fynbos plants, such as members of the buchu family (Rutaceae) and protea family (Proteaceae).
Growing Erica nabea
Erica nabea will grow best in a sunny position and prefers soil with good drainage with a pH level from 5.5–6.7. Do not opt for dense planting because it will promote fungal growth caused by poor air circulation. Prune the plant lightly after flowering, this will encourage new growth. An organic fertiliser is best for ericas, avoid chemical fertiliser as they do not respond well to it. Ericas have a very fragile root system, therefore, extra care needs to be taken when doing maintenance activities such as weeding around the plants.
Make cuttings about 40–50 mm long, heel or nodal cuttings work best. Take the cuttings from semi-hard wood at least 2 months after flowering. Remove the lower third of the cutting’s leaves. Apply a semi-hard wood rooting hormone to the cutting, this will improve root development. Place the cuttings in a rooting medium made up of fine-milled bark and polystyrene chips at a 50:50 ratio.
The ideal microclimate to successfully grow this plant by cuttings can be achieved by making use of a propagation unit with heated benches kept at 24°C and a misting system. Plant the cuttings into small pots when rooted, in a soil mixture of 8 parts bark and 3 parts sand, water well and shade lightly for a month. Apply an organic, liquid fertiliser as feeding, once every 2 weeks. The cuttings can be successfully planted out after about 3 months.
Sow seeds in the cooler months of the year, in the southern hemisphere the months April and May are best. Sow seeds in seed trays about a 100 mm deep, filled with equal parts of river sand and sifted, composted bark. The seeds are very small and need to be mixed with fine river sand prior to sowing, in order to obtain a more even spread of the seeds. Keep the medium moist by watering with a fine hose. Place the trays in a warm and sheltered spot to encourage the germination process and maintain good air circulation. The seeds show signs of germination from 1 to 2 months. Seedlings can be planted out into small pots as soon as they are about 10 mm high. Thereafter, plant the plants in garden beds as soon as they are ± 100 mm tall.
Fungal growth can be prevented by good cultural practices, such as not sowing or planting too densely and not watering at night. Scale insects can be successfully controlled by making use of a bioproduct to get rid of them.
- Bolus, H., Guthrie, F. & Brown, N.E. in Flora capensis. Erica nabea. Accessed via JSTOR Global Plants. https://plants.jstor.org/compilation/Erica.nabea. Accessed 10/11/2021.
- 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, Missouri.
- iNaturalist. Sepal Heath (Erica nabea). https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/585026-Erica-nabea. Accessed on 2021/11/15.
- Pienaar, K. & Smith, G.F. 2011. The southern African what flower is that? An essential guide to garden plants. Struik, Cape Town.
- Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. & Manyama, P.A. (eds) 2009. Red list of South African plants. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Rourke. J.P. 1980. Wild flowers of South Africa. C. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
- Schumann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
- Vlok, J. & Schutte-Vlok, A. 2010. Plants of the Klein Karoo. Umdaus Press, Hatfield, Pretoria.
- World Flora Online. Erica nabea L.Guthrie & Bolus. http://www.worldfloraonline.org/taxon/wfo-0000672684. Accessed 10/11/2021.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Autumn, Winter
Flower colour: Green, White
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average