This majestic erica probably became extinct in the wild during the first half of the twentieth century. The most recent herbarium specimen collected from a naturally occurring population dates back to 1908. The most recent records of this species in South Africa are herbarium specimens of a plant that was growing at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in 1943, and a specimen submitted by J. E. Repton, Director of the Pretoria Parks Department, in 1961, from a plant cultivated in Pretoria.
Adamson & Salter (1950) state that Erica verticillata had not been seen in remnant natural vegetation within its distribution range for many decades and was thought to be extinct in the wild by 1950. In the early 1980s, Deon Kotze, horticulturist specialising on ericas at Kirstenbosch at the time, began a concerted search amongst the remnants of lowland fynbos on and near the Peninsula for lost and rare Erica species. He was very keen to find Erica verticillata, which presented particularly fine, showy specimens on some herbarium sheets.
A chance conversation with Kirstenbosch horticultural scholar, Dawid von Well, in 1984, led to a significant discovery. Dawid mentioned to Deon Kotze that there was a large pink-flowered Erica matching the description for Erica verticillata growing at Protea Park in Pretoria. Dawid confirmed the similarity when he saw the samples preserved on herbarium sheets. He brought back cuttings for Deon and flowering specimens for Dr. E.G.H. Oliver at the Compton Herbarium, who confirmed them to be Erica verticillata.
Protea Park was one of two parks in the Pretoria area that displayed collections of fynbos plants. No records exist of how the plants came to be in this park, but they are thought to have been introduced during the 1940s. Three very old plants were growing in the Park of which two had died by the 1980s. Cuttings were collected from the last remaining plant and added to the Kirstenbosch collections in 1984. It has been named Erica verticillata ‘African Phoenix' to distinguish it from other forms that have since been discovered.
In the same year, David Cooke, Temperate House Manager and erica enthusiast at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, heard about the rediscovery of Erica verticillata in Pretoria from Kirstenbosch horticulturists at the Chelsea Flower Show. He reported that Kew also had specimens of this species and kindly sent cuttings to Kirstenbosch. Unfortunately this clone was found to be a sterile hybrid that is probably the registered Erica verticillata hybrid called ‘African Fanfare'.
A few years later, in 1990, a large mature plant was discovered by Kirstenbosch Garden's head foreman, Adonis Adonis, growing in a clearing in the forest behind the Braille Trail. It is surmised that this plant was a remnant seedling from the old erica collections that were planted in this area in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kirstenbosch plant records were consulted back to the creation of the garden in 1913 and the only collection of this form, prior to 1943, and indeed the only one from the wild, was made by Mrs Louisa Bolus, first Curator of the Bolus Herbarium (Gunn & Codd 1981). She is recorded as having collected seeds from plants growing in swampy areas on the Wynberg flats on the 1st of May 1917. A specimen of Erica verticillata from the garden collection was lodged in the Compton Herbarium in 1943. It is most probable therefore that the plant found growing at Kirstenbosch in 1990 originates from the original collection made by Mrs Bolus. The original plant has since died, but cuttings were taken and the plants that have been cultivated in the Kirstenbosch collections nursery display two shades, dark pink and light pink. It is assumed therefore that there was more than one plant growing together in the forest clearing. The dark pink-flowered form has been given the cultivar name Erica verticillata ‘Adonis' in recognition of its discoverer and the light pink form has been named Erica verticillata ‘Louisa Bolus' in recognition of its original collector.
One might have thought that this was the end of a happy tale of rediscovery, but it was not to be. Horticulturists at Kirstenbosch and other botanical gardens in the South African National Biodiversity Institute regularly contribute ‘Plant of the week' articles on South African plants for the Institute's website.
I, Anthony Hitchcock, wrote an article on Erica verticillata and asked Erica systematist, Dr. E.G.H. Oliver, to check my article before it was posted on the web page. He re-joined that there was actually a further clone, and that he had seen plants in cultivation in a nursery attached to the Belvedere Palace Gardens in Vienna back in 1967. He recalled that there was quite a good collection of Southern Hemisphere plants, which were meticulously cared for.
Dr. E.G.H. Oliver made contact with a fellow researcher, Dr. Michael Kiehn, at the nearby University of Vienna and through their efforts we managed to get a fourth clone of this lovely species. As a bonus we found that they also had plants of Erica turgida, another Cape lowlands species, which became extinct in the wild in the early 1970s due to a housing development adjacent to Kenilworth Race Course.
The process of retrieving these species proved most difficult, with bureaucratic restrictions on importing the plant material back into South Africa being the biggest challenge. The back and forth communications between Anthony Hitchcock, Dr. Kiehn, and the Belvedere Garden attracted the attention of the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture and the South African Embassy in Vienna. An official handing over ceremony was arranged in 2001 where the Austrian Minister of Agriculture and the Environment, Dr. Wilhelm Molterer, ceremonially handed the plants over to the South African ambassador, Professor Alfred T. Moleah.
When we eventually received cutting material we were surprised to find two separate packs of Erica verticillata cuttings, one labelled red and the other pink. Anthony Hitchcock contacted the horticulturist at the Belvedere Palace Garden, Mr. Michael Knaack, who confirmed that they have two forms of Erica verticillata in their collections. They have no written records on the origin of the plants and could only give me verbal information handed down from generation to generation. One of the clones appeared to be a fertile form of the species ]whereas the other is much like the ‘African Fanfare' hybrid. The species has since been verified and the fertile form named after the place of origin and called Erica verticillata ‘Belvedere'.
The story of the plants grown at the Belvedere Palace Garden goes back a long way. The Belvedere Palace Gardens is part of a group of botanical gardens and parks in Vienna that collectively fall under Schönbrunn Palace Botanical Garden management. Two gardeners, Francis Boos and George Scholl, were responsible for many plant collections made at the Cape between 1786 and 1799 for Emperor Joseph II of Austria (Gunn & Codd 1981). Francis Boos was evidently the leader of the expedition. He was a botanist as well as a gardener, whereas Scholl was a working gardener with little scientific knowledge. The Emperor Joseph II sent them to make collections of tropical plants from Mauritius, but bad weather forced their ship to shelter at the Cape of Good Hope and their stay turned out to be longer than planned. They made numerous collections of South African plants and even went on a brief collecting trip with Francis Masson (Gunn & Codd 1981).
Boos stayed at the Cape for only one year and then went on to Mauritius leaving Scholl behind to continue collecting. Boos returned to the Cape in 1788 and stayed for only a few months before returning to Vienna in July 1788 with a large collection of specimens and living plants. Scholl stayed at the Cape for twelve years mainly because he could not get passage on a ship that would transport his plant collections. Scholl was assisted by Colonel Robert Jacob Gordon, Commandant of the Dutch Garrison at the Cape. Gordon gave him protection, assisted him with his field excursions and allowed him to grow his plants in his garden often referred to in the literature as ‘the Gordon's Garden', which was situated on what is now Prince Street in the suburb known as the Gardens (Gunn & Codd 1981). Many plants were established here and Scholl collected seed from these plants. From time to time Scholl sent shipments of dried bulbs and seeds to Vienna of which four shipments are recorded in the Cape Archives from 1790 to 1792. They were first shipped to the Austrian Consul in Holland who had them transported up the Rhine and then overland to Vienna.
Scholl finally returned to Vienna in 1799 bringing with him a large collection of living plants and seed including species of Erica . Scholl was rewarded for his efforts by being promoted to the post of Superintendent to the Gardens of the Belvedere Palace.
Dr. Kiehn and staff at Schönbrunn Botanical Gardens believe that the ericas at the Belvedere Palace Garden date back to the Boos and Scholl collections. He says that there is no evidence of other collections having been made.
When I visited Vienna in 2005 I saw at least twenty Cape ericas in the Belvedere collections including, Erica patersonii, E. cerinthoides, E. turgida, E. abietina, E. mollis, E. ventricosa, E. heliophila, E. canaliculata, E. diaphana and E. baueri. There were also collections of Cape Proteaceae as well as a far larger collection of Australian Proteaceae.
Dr. E.G.H. Oliver worked with erica specialist, Dr Hans Dulfer, in the 1960s and told me that Dulfer made enquiries after the South African erica collection at the Belvedere Palace Garden. The old gardener told Dulfer that the ericas had been in the collection all his working life, which began in the 1930s, and that his predecessor remembered these collections always being at Belvedere. So we may surmise from this that the erica collections at Belvedere date at least as far back as the nineteenth century and therefore quite conceivably originate from the Boos and Scholl collections.
It is incredible to think that many of these original collections may have been nurtured for over 200 years through all the political turmoil of wars and conquest. Indeed some knowledgeable members of the Heather Society of Great Britain doubt that these collections could have survived the ravages of war and particularly the bombing at the end of the Second World War.
The Belvedere Palace and Schönbrunn Palace Gardens were indeed severely damaged by bombing at the end of the war. I was also sceptical and so asked Michael Knaack, horticulturist at Belvedere, to see what he could find out about this. His enquiries revealed that most of the collections at Belvedere were destroyed at the end of the war when the glasshouses were damaged by a bomb falling in the centre of the Reservegarten. Many plant collections survived, however, because they were purposely duplicated and kept in other gardens and glasshouses, in order to reduce the risk. It is possible, therefore, that most of the species were saved.
The erica collection was evidentially moved to the Alpengarten (Alpine Garden) which comprises an Erdhaus, a glasshouse built below the ground surface, which is therefore free from frost even when the artificial heating systems are not functioning. This is apparently how the erica collection survived the last winter of the Second World War.
The search for lost collections of Erica verticillata continued, becoming an exercise in detective work. The existence of additional collections of E. verticillata was revealed with assistance from members the British and North American Heather Societies, botanical gardens, erica growers in Europe and by searching the internet. Through this process we were able to add a collection from Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Scilly Isles, one originally from the erica collection of Dr. Violet Gray via the British Heather Society, a trademarked selection from Monrovia Nursery in California called Erica verticillata ‘Ruby Lace', two from a nurseryman in Germany and another collection from Kew.
Kew records show that they had a number of different forms of Erica verticillata , but unfortunately some were discarded some years ago. Their records showed that one of their collections originated from seed sent them by Harry Wood, Curator of Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus, in 1961. Cuttings taken from this collection were brought back to Kirstenbosch by Ernst van Jaarsveld in 2006.
Trying to determine the origin, uniqueness and genetic integrity of these collections is a difficult if not impossible process because plants are frequently exchanged between organizations without good records having been kept. It is therefore possible that we may have received duplicate collections from different sources.
Attempts thus far to use molecular means to establish which collections are pure species, different clones or duplicate collections have not been conclusive. Molecular studies would be useful to help establish the size and integrity of the genetic pool and will be important for selecting clones for restoration programs. Molecular investigation has so far been inconclusive because ericas are evidently difficult to sequence.
Dr. E.G.H. Oliver undertook a comparative study of the clones in the Kirstenbosch collections in 2008. He examined fresh material of nine separate clones provided from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. They were all attributed to Erica verticillata .
Dr. E.G.H. Oliver's examination determined six collections to be true Erica verticillata ; including those sourced from Pretoria, Protea Park (536/84); Kirstenbosch Braille Trail (294/90); Belvedere Palace (109/01); Tresco Abbey Garden (543/06); Dr. Violet Gray ex David Small of the British Heather Society (548/06) and Kew Gardens ex Harry Wood (657/06). All six clones are recorded as producing fertile seed which fact would corroborate their taxonomic status. The collection Erica verticillata ‘Ruby Lace' was not assessed as it had not produced flowers at Kirstenbosch at the time of the study. It does however superficially appear to be a true species and does produce viable seed that flowers true to type. Dr. E.G.H. Oliver subsequently assessed ‘Ruby Lace' in May 2012, for this paper, and determined it to also be the true species. A total of seven living collections of Erica verticillata are now held at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Three collections were noted not to match any of the currently known and accepted 840 species of Erica , but with a superficial 'look' of Erica verticillata . These collections are more or less identical to what Dr. E.G.H. Oliver determined to be hybrids between Erica verticillata and some other species, most probably having originated in some European garden collection. These include: Kew Gardens (594/84); Belvedere Palace (110/01) and Rhineland nursery (550/06). There is no possibility of knowing what the other parent species could be. It is most likely that Erica verticillata was the female parent in the cross. Some flowering branches of these plants look like Erica doliiformis which has similarly shaped and sized flowers and are umbellate on the ends of main branches with long crowded leaves, but its flowers have very long glandular pedicels. All three clones are recorded as being infertile, thus corroborating their hybrid status.
Ex situ Conservation
( The conservation of a species outside its natural habitat such as in a Botanical Garden or seed bank)
There has been much debate and some scepticism within botanical gardens and academic, conservation and botanical research organisations over the conservation value of keeping collections of wild species in botanical gardens or in private collections. Erica verticillata is testimony that keeping such collections of wild species can play an important role in preserving a species and may in some cases contribute to conservation programs. E. verticillata has, with the help of a few botanical gardens and some dedicated collectors and growers, managed to claw its way back from the verge of extinction to become one of the most important flagship conservation species in South Africa. Flagship species are high profile species that draw attention to important conservation issues and the plight of threatened species. An example of a flagship species in the animal kingdom is the Panda bear.
The rediscovery of Erica verticillata excited interest amongst conservationists to attempt to re-establish it in its natural habitat. All suitable natural habitats, save three: Rondevlei Nature Reserve, an area of sand plain fynbos within the Table Mountain Park at Tokai and the centre of the Kenilworth Race Course, have been destroyed by development.
Mr. Dalton Gibbs, Conservation Manager for the Cape Metropolitan Council, was first to attempt to reintroduce the Pretoria clone of Erica verticillata ‘African Phoenix' to Rondevlei Nature Reserve in 1994 with plants supplied by Kirstenbosch. He planted ten plants, in a transect, from the drier sandy areas across a range of habitats ending in the wetland, but met with limited success. Only one plant survived, but this indicated to him that this species prefers the margin between the dry and wet soils.
More plants were planted in the identified suitable niche habitats at Rondevlei in 1995, 1997 and 1998. The ericas established well reaching maturity and attracting pollinators such as the lesser double collared sunbird, hawk moths and bumblebees. The plants are however self-sterile and were not producing seed, so it was decided to add a second clone, Erica verticillata ‘Adonis', in 2001. The plants at Rondevlei have produced viable seed since the introduction of this second clone, and seedlings have been germinated from this seed and planted at a community development project at Bottom Road Sanctuary on the shores of Zeekoevlei.
These two clones of Erica verticillata were also planted at Kenilworth Race Course in 2005 and have survived and flower profusely every year. Seedlings have been observed to be recruiting near the parent plants.
In 2004 Dr. A. Rebelo from SANBI and Anthony Hitchcock began planning the restoration of red list species to the sand plain fynbos areas of Tokai that had recently been handed over to be managed by the South African National Parks. Restoration focussed on red list species from the area that had not naturally re-emerged after the removal of the pine plantations and after the area was burnt. This area is ideal for re-establishing Erica verticillata . Three clones have been planted at Tokai including those originating from Protea Park (536/84); Kirstenbosch Braille Trail (294/90) and Belvedere Palace (109/01). They have established splendidly at Soetvlei and Prinskasteel wetlands at Tokai.
The restoration of this species is a long process and it has to survive through natural recruitment through three generations, i.e. three burn cycles in the wild without further restocking, replanting or reseeding before it will be re-assessed based on IUCN Red List categories. The reclassified will depend on the number of plants that exist after three generations on their own, whether they are stable, declining or increasing, how fragmented they are and the area that they have been restored to.
Conservation of our rich Cape flora is a great challenge, especially given the increased demand for land and resources, and the effects of climate. This is particularly true for the lowlands from where Erica verticillata originates. Many other species will not be so lucky and will be lost forever. An example is E. pyramidalis , which grew together with E. verticillata , but is now extinct in the wild and with no ex-situ cultivated plants in existence. As of writing, large numbers of plants are on the brink of extinction on the Cape flats. We will lose these species, and many more, unless these endangered habitats are not conserved as a matter of urgency. E. verticillata therefore plays a crucial role in this process, as it is the flagship species that helps to create awareness and that symbolizes the general plight of our vanishing flora.