Phylica gnidioides Eckl. & Zeyh.
Common names: pink phylica, pink hardleaf (Eng.); pienk-hardebos (Afr.)
Phylica is a genus predominantly found in the Cape flora with about 138 species, of which 90% are endemic. The genus exhibits a significant range of shrub shapes and flower forms, some of which are lovely and have very good horticultural potential. Phylica gnidioides is one of the most beautiful in this group.
Phylica gnidioides is a compact, many branched, rounded shrub, up to 900 mm high and with a 1 m spread. The leaves are dark grey-green, linear, 8–10 mm long, smooth above with the edges of leaves rolled under towards the midrib. The flower heads (capitula) are composed of about 7 or 8, tubular, pink, 10 mm long flowers, densely grouped at the tips of the stems. The flowers are unusual as they are made up of sepals rather than petals. In this species the sepals are fused together into a calyx, forming a lovely pink star, whereas, the petals are insignificant and inserted in the mouth of the tube. These beautiful flowers are covered with fine, soft hairs. It flowers in autumn and winter, from May to July.
This species is classified in the SANBI Red List as Least Concern (LC), as it is widespread within its habitat and not declining.
Distribution and habitat
Phylica gnidioides occurs on sandy flats, dunes and grassy slopes in the Eastern Cape, from Humansdorp, to hills near Grahamstown. Like most phylicas it prefers exposed comparatively dry, well-drained, acidic soils and a sunny position.
Phylica belongs in the Rhamnaceae, a family of ± 58 genera and 900 species, spread throughout the tropical and subtropical parts of the world, with nine genera and 203 species in southern Africa. Other southern African genera that gardeners may be familiar with include Rhamnus, Ziziphus, Berchemia and Scutia.
Phylica is a genus of ± 188 species of shrubs and small trees confined to Africa south of the Equator and to a few islands in the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Most of them are found in the southwestern corner of South Africa in the Western Cape and Northern Cape, where they are often restricted to small areas. The rest occur on the Drakensberg in the Free State, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and into Mpumalanga, Swaziland, Gauteng and North-West, and on Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, New Amsterdam, St Helena and the Tristan da Cunha group of islands. A few species can be found in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name, Phylica, is from the Greek, phyllikos meaning ‘leafy’, referring to the densely leafy stems of most of the plants in this genus. The specific name gnidioides means ‘like the genus Gnidia’, which belongs to the family Thymelaeaceae, and was named by Linnaeus. Gnidia is named after the classical Greek port city of Knidos (Cnidus — today the Turkish port city of Cumali), where the genus Daphne, with similar flowers, and also in the family Thymelaeaceae, grows. The flowers of Phylica gnidioides are similarly grouped to Gnidia, either in clusters in the leaf axils towards the end of the stems, or in terminal heads.
Phylica gnidioides grows in well-drained, sandy, acidic soils on the windy hills and sandy coastal plains of the Eastern Cape. The climate at the western limit of its distribution is Mediterranean, consisting of grassy fynbos or coastal vegetation. Further east, it will receive summer rainfall. Plants are killed by fire and regenerate from seed.
Different species of bees, flies and beetles can be seen in abundance on the flowering heads, presumably effecting pollination. The fruit, which ripens in early summer, is a hard capsule which splits open to release seeds that have an appendage called an elaiosome, which is very attractive to ants. Elaiosomes (from the Greek élaion meaning ‘oil’ and sóma ‘body’) are fleshy structures that are attached to the seeds of many plant species and attract animals or insects. The elaiosome is rich in lipids and proteins, and may be variously shaped. Many fynbos plants have elaiosomes on their seeds that attract ants, which take the seeds to their nest and feed the elaiosome to their larvae. After the larvae have consumed the elaiosome, the ants take the seed to their waste-disposal area, which is rich in nutrients from the ant frass and dead bodies. This type of seed dispersal is termed myrmecochory, from the Greek myrmex meaning ‘ant’ and kore ‘dispersal’.
The seed remains in the ground until the next fire, after which it germinates. The heat of the fire cracks the hard seed coat allowing the seed to take up water and oxygen needed for germination to take place.
Phylica gnidioides is suitable for most gardens in the frost-free, coastal regions of South Africa. Its suitability to other zones still needs to be determined. It is a very attractive garden shrub suitable for any sunny garden or rockery. It has the potential to make a wonderful container plant.
Growing Phylica gnidioides
This Phylica is easily grown from seed, which should preferably be sown in autumn (March/April) in the Western Cape. In other regions, it should probably be germinated at the beginning of the growing season, i.e. spring in the summer rainfall regions. The seeds are small and hard, and housed in small, woody capsules, which split open. Treat the seed by soaking in hot water until it cools, and sow in a well-drained, acidic growing medium. Hot water softens the hard seed coat and allows the uptake of water and oxygen necessary for germination. Treatment with smoke or smoke extract may also assist germination, but this has not been confirmed. The seed takes about 6 to ten weeks to germinate. The young seedlings should be protected from heavy rainfall and direct sunlight, by placing the trays under cover while still providing good light, warmth and aeration. The seedlings should be watered gently to avoid washing them out of the tray or flattening their young delicate stems. Allow the young plants to grow to about 10 mm tall before planting them out into multi-trays or small pots/bags. Plants should be grown on for a few months up to a year until their roots are established, before planting out in the garden.
Propagation from cuttings should be done with suitable facilities such as mist propagation houses with heated benches and overhead misting. Cuttings are normally taken in autumn in the winter rainfall Western Cape, but may be taken in spring early summer as well. Fresh, actively growing, thin side shoots taken as heel cuttings, yield the best results. A rooting hormone for semi-hardwood cuttings applied to the cut surface or heel results in quicker and better rooting. The rooting medium should be well drained and aerated consisting of about 70:30 perlite and 6 mm milled pine bark. Rooting may take from 8 to sixteen weeks and sometimes longer. If the stem tip develops a callous, but does not root, score the callus and apply more hormone, and place in fresh rooting medium. This often results in very good rooting.
Phylica gnidioides should do well in most gardens in South Africa where the humidity is not too high and where there is little or no frost. It ought to do well in coastal gardens as long as the soils are acidic and they are not exposed to direct salt-laden wind. It is suited to various types of gardens, including open beds, rockeries and on slopes.
Feed before flowering with slow release 3:1:5 or monthly with a good organic seaweed-derived fertilizer. This species has a compact, pleasing growth habit and, therefore, should not require pruning. It is a good flowerer and is a wonderful addition to the garden.
- Foden, W. & Potter, L. 2005. Phylica gnidioides Eckl. & Zeyh. National Assessment: Red List of South African plants version 2015.1. Accessed on 2016/05/21.
- Manning, J. & Goldblatt, P. 2012. Plants of the Greater Cape Floristic Region 1: the Core Cape Flora. Strelitzia 29. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Pillans, N.S. 1942. The genus Phylica, Linn. Journal of South African Botany 8: 1–164.
- Wikipedia: Gnidia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnidia
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Autumn, Winter
Flower colour: Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average