Erica nana Salisb.
Common names: dwarf heath
As winter begins to loosen its grip in the Cape, spring is heralded by a magnificent profusion of sunshine yellow as Erica nana comes into flower.
Erica nana is a low-growing, sprawling, woody shrub attaining a diameter of 1 m and an average height of 500 mm. The branches are described as divaricate (spread widely), flexuous (winding from side to side) and ridged. Leaves are 4-nate (4 leaves arranged in a ring around the stem), 4-8 mm long, erect and linear.
Erica nana is highly floriferous, the flowers often completely covering the neat and compact shrublet from September to October. The flowers are 3- or 4-nate (consisting of 3 or 4 parts) and are found at the ends of short branches. Sepals (modified leaves that surround and protect the flower while in bud) are keeled. Upon opening, the tubular, 20 mm long corolla (main visible part of the flower, consisting of four joined petals) is greenish yellow but soon turns to a bright yellow producing a spectacular sight. The corolla lobes are slightly cup-shaped. Anthers have awns (appendages at the base of the anther).
According to the Red List of South African Plants (Raimondo et al. 2009) Erica nana is assessed as Vulnerable (VU). Found nowhere else in the world except on the high slopes of the Hottentots Holland Mountains and in the cracks and crevices above Kogel Bay, this species is naturally rare. This condition has been exacerbated, however, by too frequent fires, the construction of Sir Lowry's Pass and over-exploitation by wildflower harvesters. "Here today" can so easily become "gone tomorrow"! Luckily, many of these activities have stopped, and this South African jewel is blessed with a number of characteristics which make it a worthy horticultural subject (Hitchcock 1990).
Distribution and habitat
Erica nana grows naturally at high altitudes on the rocks and cliff faces of the Hottentots Holland Mountains at three specific localities only. The cold wet winters and warm dry summers of the Mediterranean type climate characterise the area but the change from one season to the next is mild due to the moderating effects of the dominant ocean winds coming off the South Atlantic Ocean.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Nana comes from the Latin nanus, which means dwarf and describes Erica nana's low growth habit.
This is a compact, long lived erica, old plants becoming along bonsai like.
Growing Erica nana
Like all ericas, Erica nana may be grown from seed or cuttings, however, cuttings are easier and faster to grow and produce plants that are far more robust. Seedlings 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, though, 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 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 the 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 1/3 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 liter 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 et al. 2006). Ericas grow better when planted close together with other fynbos plants to form dense stands that cover the ground. They grow particularly well in rockeries or sloping ground but 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 TownPrinting Department.
- Oliver, T. (E.G.H.) & Oliver, I. 2000. Ericas of the Cape Peninsula. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
- Schum ann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy