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.
Specimens of Erica nana were discovered by the Scottish plant collector Francis Masson in 1774; today this plant is allocated a conservation status of Vulnerable. In nature it is found in a highly restricted range in the uppermost reaches of the Hottentots’ Holland and Kogelberg Mountains east of Cape Town. It is a dwarf species that forms thick mats of sprawling branches up to 1 m across and 0.2 m high. In spring and early summer the branches become laden with large, deep yellow tubular flowers with prominent brown anthers. The woody branches of E. nana need no pruning, and the plant is seldom subject to pests or diseases. Although slow-growing it is a longlived plant under ideal conditions. It is perfectly suited to rock gardens and can also be planted so that it sprawls over low garden walls. In rock garden pockets it is best grown in groups of three and can be successfully inter-planted with the dwarf, bright red spring- flowering Watsonia coccinea and the deep blue Babiana angustifolia. It also makes an outstanding subject for containers and can be most effectively grown in a ‘strawberry pot’ that accommodates several plants – a magnificent display of E. nana grown in a strawberry pot by the erica enthusiast Dr Louis Vogelpoel regularly won first prize at spring wild flower shows in Cape Town during the 1970s and 1980s.
Article by Graham Duncan