Erica sitiens Klotzsch
Common names: thirsty heath (Eng.) dors-heide (Afr.)
This upright or sprawling shrub becomes covered with masses of pink, red or white flowers, or a combination of red with white lobes, during the summer months.
Erica sitiens varies in growth form, it can be very low growing almost creeping or it can grow upright and reach a height of ± 600 to 900 mm. The leaves are erect, straight and imbricate (overlapping like roof tiles). The flowers are presented in fours, sometimes in threes or singly. The corolla is small, 6 to 8 mm long, asymmetrically inflated, tubular, pale to dark pink to red, sometimes white, sometimes red with white lobes. The anthers are aristate, meaning they have horn-like appendages. Flowering is mainly in summer.
Erica sitiens is not threatened and was given an automated conservation status of Least Concern (LC).
Distribution and habitat
Erica sitiens is a South African endemic and is found in the Western Cape, from the Hottentots Holland to the Palmiet River Mountains where it has established itself at altitudes from 300 to 1 000 m above sea level and usually is quite common between the areas of Stellenbosch and Hermanus. This plant never grows in marshy conditions, it grows happily in rocky outcrops, which is possibly a clever method of obtaining extra moisture to survive dry spells.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Erica derives from the Latin word ereiko which means ‘heath’ or ‘broom’. The specific epithet sitiens is Latin and means ‘thirsting’, this could refer to the fact that the plant does not grow in marshy conditions or near water.
The flowers were observed to be visited by insects, which play a major role in carrying out the pollination process by moving from one flower to the other. The seeds are small and can remain viable for long periods within the soil in their natural environment, and usually germinate only when the right temperature and soil moisture occurs, when conditions become favourable for them.
This plant adapts well to container planting, however the soil medium should be in the acidic range and it is essential that the pot drains adequately. Erica sitiens makes an excellent companion plant when planted in garden beds with other fynbos plants, such as species in the Restionaceae, Proteaceae and Rutaceae families.
Growing Erica sitiens
Erica sitiens grows well in soil with a pH ranging from 5.5-6.7 and prefers a sunny position. Regular pruning will encourage new growth and flowering, and the plant responds best to being fed with an organic liquid fertilizer.
Sow seeds in autumn, around April and May, when the temperature starts to drop naturally. Mix river sand and sifted composted pine bark in a 50:50 ratio and add to a 100 mm deep seed tray and level it. Use fine river sand to mix with the seeds and broadcast it on top of the levelled mix, cover it lightly with some of the mixed sand. Keep the medium moist by watering with a fine hose. The seeds will start to show signs of germination after about 2 months. The germination process can be enhanced by the application of smoke (from fynbos plant material) which mimics the conditions in nature. Transplant the seedlings into small pots once they are 10 mm in height.
Take ± 40-50 mm cuttings two months after flowering, take heel or nodal cuttings from semi-hardwood growth, apply a rooting hormone for semi-hardwood cuttings and plant them in a rooting medium of fine-milled bark and perlite balls at a 50:50 ratio . Erica sitiens can be successfully propagated in greenhouse conditions with a misting system and a constant bottom heat of 24°C. Transplant the rooted cuttings into small pots (about 9 cm) in a soil mixture of 8 parts bark and 3 parts sand, and water thoroughly. Feed with an organic liquid fertilizer, preferably a fish emulsion type, every 2 weeks. The cuttings will be ready to be planted after about 3 months.
It is best to plant out the young plants in the autumn or early winter months when the weather conditions get cooler, to allow the plants to establish before the start of summer. Erica plants naturally grow in poor soils, but for best results should be regularly fed with diluted organic liquid or small amounts of organic pellet fertilizers that are low in phosphorus.
Control mealybug and scale insects by applying an appropriate pesticide product, organic pesticides are nowadays regularly available and are a better option, follow the directions for application closely.
Preventative measures such as not sowing seeds too densely and maintaining good air circulation can prevent fungal attacks.
- Bolus, H., Guthrie, F. & Brown, N.E. 1909. Ericaceae. Flora capensis 4(1):2–418.
- 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.
- 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.
- Smith, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Government Printer, Pretoria.
- Stearn, W. 2002. Stearn's dictionary of plant names for gardeners. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: images by Alice Notten.
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer, Autumn
Flower colour: Red, White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average