Syncarpha vestita (L.) B.Nord.
Common names: cape snow, white everlasting (Eng.); witsewejaartjie (Afr.)
At the height of its flowering, this relatively short-lived, woolly shrublet forms masses of beautiful white flowerheads that shine in the bright light of summer.
Growing up to 1m tall, this compact, much-branched shrublet has soft woody stems and branches and a thick covering of grey-woolly hairs that feels like felt. The densely crowded leaves are erect and narrowly oblong, usually about 5-8mm wide. Towards the branch tips the leaves give way to narrow, dry bracts and finally to a solitary, conical flowerhead about 20mm wide.
Each flowerhead has several closely overlapping bracts that surround a dense cluster of tiny purple flowers. The bracts are acute, shiny white and papery, which makes them rustle gently in the wind. On cool, overcast days and at night the bracts loosely enclose the flowers and only spread wide to reveal the flowers in warm sunshine.
Flowering lasts several weeks while the tiny flowers open in sequence. This may start in late October and last until January. Each tiny fruit is topped by a small tuft of bristles that helps carry it away on the wind. Although fast growing, the plant is relatively short-lived, with a life span of less than ten years.
According to recent Red Data assessments, Syncarpha vestita is regarded as being of Least Concern since the populations face no perceived threats to their future survival.
Distribution and habitat
Populations of many thousands of plants are found from the Cape Peninsula to near George, Western Cape. The plants grow in full sun on sandy flats and well-drained stony slopes within fynbos.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The botanical name Syncarpha is derived from the Greek syn which means united, and karphos which means scale or other small dry structure. This presumably refers to the tuft of bristles on the fruit which are united at the base into a smooth ring. This feature is one which distinguishes the genus from its close relatives, such as Helichrysum.
The Latin name vestita means clothed and describes the dense covering of hairs on the plant's branches and leaves. When cut, the dry flowerheads of S. vestita retain their shape and colour for many years, giving it the common name everlasting. The alternative common name in Afrikaans is sewejaartjie which refers to the plant's habit of disappearing from the veld after a lifespan of about seven years.
The genus Syncarpha is confined to southern Africa and includes about 30 species, the majority of which are endemic to the Greater Cape Floristic Region, an area that encompasses the winter-rainfall and all year-rainfall regions of southern Africa. Only four species extend eastwards into the summer-rainfall region of the Eastern Cape Province. Other showy members of the family are S. argyropsis and S. eximia.
This shrub is known as a fire ephemeral since it grows from seed that germinates after fire. Plants are typically short-lived and survive for about seven years during the period that the surrounding vegetation remains relatively low. It then dies with only the dormant seed persisting in the soil until another fire starts the process of renewal once more. Typically the plant grows rapidly and then flowers profusely during the dry summer season in the first years after fire. During this time they form conspicuous stands of plants covered in beautiful white flowerheads and when seen from afar, they resemble flocks of beautiful, clean sheep.
The purple centres of the flowerheads attract several species of beetles such as Spilocephalus viridipennis and Trichostetha capensis, which feed on pollen and possibly use the sites as places to mate. In some instances the beetles blend in so well with the flowers that they are difficult to detect. These beetles are probably the main pollinators of Syncarpha vestita.
Like other everlastings, Syncarpha vestita is used in the dried-flower industry. Once harvested the inflorescences are hung up to dry and then used in flower arrangements. They are often brightly dyed to further their commercial use.
Growing Syncarpha vestita
Syncarpha vestita has been cultivated at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden with modest success. The plants are best grown from seeds, but make sure these have not been damaged by parasites which often predate the fruiting heads. Sow seed in a well-drained soil mix in autumn and treat with smoke for the best results. A bee smoker directed into a paper packet or smoke discs are suitable for this. Prepare a slightly acidic soil medium consisting of river sand and well-decomposed pine bark in roughly equal proportions. Seedlings germinate relatively quickly (4-6 weeks) and when they are 5-10mm high, prick them out into small plugs with not too much soil.
Too much watering often results in losses, so allow good drying out periods in between watering. Keep the seedlings under cover in a well-ventilated, bright, warm area. Watch out for caterpillars as these can cause damage. Encourage young seedlings to grow by feeding them weekly with a diluted organic fertilizer. When they are about 50-100mm tall, transplant them into the garden in a sunny, well-drained position, preferably during autumn or the early winter months so that the plants can become established before the onset of summer. During summer water the plants well once a week. Although short-lived, S. vestita is a beautiful plant. Like other sewejaartjies it is best combined with Cape reeds (species of Restionaceae).
- 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.
- 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.
- Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera . Botanical Society of South Africa, Kirstenbosch, Claremont.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seeds plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria .
- Cowling, R. & Richardson, D. 1995. Fynbos South Africa's unique floral kingdom . Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.
- Smith , C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35.
Compton Herbarium, Kirstenbosch
Images: Colin Paterson Jones
Plant Type: Perennial, Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: White, Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Challenging