Tuesday 29 November 2011

Erica gracilis (and other Cape heaths)

Erica gracilis
For the past couple of weeks I've been enjoying a generously-sized pot of Erica gracilis, one of the South African Cape heaths, which I bought for the princely sum of £2.99 from our greengrocer in Cirencester. It's about 30 cm high and wide, and is absolutely smothered by thousands of small richly-coloured flowers. In the batch were white-flowered plants too, and I suspect this is a selected clone with particularly reddish-hued flowers as the species is usually a slightly duller purplish pink. As a wild plant Erica gracilis is found at lower elevations between Swellendam and Humansdorp on the Garden Route east of Cape Town, and is not particularly abundant, it seems.

As the authors of Ericas of Southern Africa (Schumann et al. 1992) remark, however, 'it is nowadays grown more prolifically under artificial conditions in Europe than it it occurs naturally in South Africa.' But the odd thing is that this heath is the only one of the almost 700 South African species to have become an item of mass cultivation in Europe - and it is an important item. I've always understood that the cultivation of Erica gracilis is a German speciality, and an internet search reveals that this does indeed sem to be the case. Several large German nurseries specialise in heathers, and each has a range of different Erica gracilis cultivars. Among them are EurofleursGartenbau Holz, and Silber Gartenbau. The plant (actually there are several individuals in the pot) I bought was grown in a clay pot - a great rarity in itself these days - that looks as if it had been plunged in sand, and was potted in a very light compost of peat and silver sand. This all suggests that the cultivation of E. gracilis is a very specialist skill, which makes it all the more a pity that it is sold mostly as a short-lived throw-away plant. I suspect that most get planted in the garden, in fact, where they must have a very short life: the rest probably dry up quickly in a centrally-heated home.

Erica gracilis, as bought in a dirty clay pot.
I fear the same fate will befall my plant, but it doews make me think, why should this species be so successful in cultivation 9when conditions are right)? I don't know, but it seems that in the past Cape heaths were rather popular in cultivation and that we have lost the knack - or tradition - of growing them. It seems to me that here is a frontier to be rediscovered. Below are a few representatives of the diversity of Cape Erica, photographed at Kirstenbosch in September 2010.

Erica brachialis

Erica coryiifolia

Erica discolor subsp. speciosa

Erica baueri subsp. baueri
Erica 'Glengold' - a truly showy hybrid cultivar.

1 comment:

  1. A genus that I have wronged by dismissing it as being a little so so.
    Not any more!Erica brachialis and E.discolor are outstanding!
    Thanks for showing them.


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