Erica cerinthoides

The honey wort

The family Ericaceae contains more than 100 genera of mostly small to large shrubs and trees. It includes well known garden and fruit favourites like Erica, Rhododendron and Vaccinium (blueberries) and is represented worldwide, except in the areas covered by deserts. Within the genus Erica there are more than 800 species occurring in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, with by far the largest number found in southern Africa (more than 760 species). These local ericas form one of the main constituents of the distinctive Cape flora (fynbos), along with restios, proteas, buchus and brunias.

Growing Ericas

Requirements for success with ericas include full sun; an acid, well drained soil; free air movement around the plants; regular heavy rainfall (or watering) in winter and as little disturbance to the roots as possible. Ericas are best planted out into the garden and into permanent pots from late autumn to early winter, once temperatures have cooled markedly. Once planted, they need to be kept well irrigated, and the soil surface should be kept as cool as possible by mulching or inter-planting with companion fynbos groundcovers. Weeds that develop close to the plants should not be pulled out but simply cut o‑ just below soil level; this ensures as little root damage as possible. The plants benefit from applications of seaweed-based fertiliser and can also be fed with controlled release fertilisers. Fresh seeds germinate easily when sown in autumn and treated with a smoke extract. Ericas are ideally suited to rock gardens and containers, they attract nectar-feeding birds and those with long stems make useful cut ­flowers. Although many species are dicult to maintain in cultivation over the long term, E. cerinthoides, E. nana and E. regia are three that, under suitable conditions, can be relied upon to perform well for many years. These three have been grown to perfection by erica expert Anthony Hitchcock at Kirstenbosch Gardens in Cape Town.

Red hairy heath, Fire heath Described by Carl Linnaeus in 1762, Erica cerinthoides is probably the most easily recognisable member of this exceptionally large genus. It has the widest distribution of all the southern African ericas, extending from the Soutpansberg Mountains in Limpopo in a south easterly direction to the southernmost tip of the Cape Peninsula, and up the west coast to the Cederberg Mountains. There are two varieties: var. cerinthoides, which occurs throughout the distribution range, and the shorter- flowered var. barbertona, found from Mpumalanga to the Drakensberg and Swaziland. E. cerinthoides is found in countless di‑ erent habitats and is an extremely variable plant with respect to ­ flower size and colour, plant height, degree of leaf hairiness and ­ flowering period. Its persistent rootstock allows it to survive even severe bush fires, rapidly re-sprouting at any time of year, but especially in autumn or spring after the first winter or summer rains have fallen. The flowers appear at any time of year but mainly in spring and summer, and are extremely sticky, frequently trapping small insects including flies and moths.

ERICA cerinthoides is a long-lived species and best suited to cultivation in rock garden pockets or in groups of three or more amongst rocks in garden beds. It also performs well in deep containers with a diameter of 25 to 30 cm. Young plants form neat, compact bushes during the first few years, thereafter becoming lanky and woody with age, reaching a height of up to 1 m, so it is essential to prune back the branches by half after flowering. Forms of this species from the Drakensberg can take moderate frost while those from temperate regions in the south western Cape can only take light frost for short periods, but will re-sprout if damaged.

The Gardener