Full Circle: Extinct in the wild erica returns to its roots
On the 7th September 2012, Anthony Hitchcock, Nursery Manager of Kirstenbosch, returned a very special plant to Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus, for their display garden. This was a plant that they donated to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London back in 1961, and a plant that we nearly lost completely, after it went extinct in its native habitat.
Anthony Hitchcock of Kirstenbosch handing over Erica verticillata ‘Harry Wood’ to Geraldine Gardener (Friends of Fernkloof) and Nursery Assistant, Isaac Magwasa
Erica verticillata, the whorled heath, is thought to have become Extinct in the Wild by the 1950s. It used to grow wild in a narrow strip of damp flats between Observatory and Zeekoevlei near Muizenberg. This area was developed early on by colonists and it is now under the suburbs of Cape Town.
Tracking down Erica verticillata
In the early 1980s, Kirstenbosch horticulturists began searching for surviving Erica verticillata plants in gardens. The first one was found in Protea Park, Pretoria, in 1984 and six more and a few hybrids were found in a number of botanical gardens and nurseries around the world, and then brought back into cultivation at Kirstenbosch.
While searching for records of this plant Anthony found a report of it in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew database referring to seed that was donated by Harry Wood, the first curator of Fernkloof Nature Reserve and gardens, in 1961. Harry Wood sent the seeds to Kew under the incorrect name Erica grandiflora var. exsurgens, but the plant was re-identified as Erica verticillata by Kew taxonomists.
Cuttings taken from this collection were brought back to Kirstenbosch by Ernst van Jaarsveld, succulent specialist at Kirstenbosch, in 2006.
Erica veriticillata at Kirstenbosch
Today we have eight collections of Erica verticillata from around the world growing at Kirstenbosch. Each form has been given a cultivar name, registered by Dr. Charles Nelson who is the international registrar for Ericaceae. The plants donated to Kew by Harry Wood have been called Erica verticillata ‘Harry Wood’.
Erica verticillata can be seen growing at Kirstenbosch in the Garden of Extinction, the Erica Garden and Protea Garden. Plants have also been successfully re-introduced to reserves on the Cape Flats, such as Rondevlei, Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area and Tokai. Its peak flowering season is during late summer to autumn.