Plant Highlight: Erica plukenetii
About the genus
The genus Erica is a large one, with well over 800 species. It lends its name to the family Ericaceae, which includes many well-known plants such as Scotch heather, blueberries, rhododendrons and manzanitas. The common names “heath” and “heather” are often applied to various species of Erica, though plants in related genera (such as Scotch heather, Calluna vulgaris) share these names. While there are a number of Erica species native to Europe and the Mediterranean region, there are far more found in Africa, especially in the winter-rainfall area in the southwestern part of the continent. A prominent vegetation type in this region is known as “fynbos”, which means “fine bush”, in reference to the small leaves of many of the plants, including the various species of Erica found there. One such species with an extensive distribution in western South Africa is Erica plukenetii.
About the species
Although some forms may reach a height of up to 6.6 feet (2 m), Erica plukenetii is typically an erect shrub up to 3 feet tall (.9 m). It has narrow needle-like leaves up to .63 inch long (16 mm), and these curve forward toward the branch tips with a look reminiscent of small pine needles. It is evergreen, with multiple upward-growing slender woody branches.
About the flowers and fruits
Erica plukenetii is variable in its flowering time, but the well-known populations near Cape Town flower mainly in the winter months, as do our plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden in California. The flowers occur in clusters held close to the stems along the middle to upper portion of the branches. They have pedicels (the stalks of the individual flowers) up to about a half-inch long (12 mm), and these bend sharply downward, so that the flowers point down. There are five pointed sepals clasping the base of the flower, which is more or less tubular, but a little wider at the base and tapering toward the narrow mouth. The flower length is variable, but usually between .28 to .63 inch (7 and 16 mm), with the eight tightly clustered dark stamens extending well beyond this and surrounding the slender style. The flower color is usually in the pink-to-red range but may occasionally be white or even yellow. The fruit is a small four-valved capsule holding many tiny seeds.
Care and maintenance
Since it comes from the western part of South Africa, where there is a Mediterranean-type climate, Erica plukenetii performs well in areas with winter rainfall and dry summers, such as California. It does not mind occasional summer watering, as long as it has good drainage, and it prefers a sunny position and soils that are neutral to acidic, rather than alkaline.
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