Erica fairii

Family : Ericaceae
Common name : Fairy Heath

Erica fairii flowers

Conserve a species on the brink of extinction and marvel at the unique beauty of this unassuming plant.

Erica fairii is a low-growing, erect, straggling shrub attaining an average height of 60 cm. Flowering from December to June, Erica fairii's yellowish green elongated urn-shaped flowers are 7 – 8 mm long, occurring in 4's on nodding heads at the ends of side branches. The corolla is very sticky and is enveloped at the base by rough, thick leaves forming a 'cape-like' covering. The small yellowish green sepals are papery and have glands on both sides. The anthers are crested and have large pores. The leaves occur in groups of 4 – 6 and are hard with re-curved tips giving the edges a prickly appearance. E. fairii has no close relatives.

Erica fairii flowers and floliageConservation status
As South Africans we are custodians of the world's richest temperate flora. We can say this confidently because of the 370 000 species of mosses, ferns and seed plants currently estimated to exist on our planet 20 456 species are recorded here. Of this number 65% (13 256 species) occur nowhere else in the world. This is astounding when you consider that South Africa only accounts for 2.5% of the world's land surface! So, what we have is precious.

One of the many species exemplifying this precious condition is Erica fairii. According to the Red List of South African Plants (Raimondo et al. 2009) E. fairii is listed as Vulnerable (V). But, what does “Vulnerable” actually mean? According to the IUCN, a taxon is Vulnerable when the best available evidence indicates that it meets any of the following criteria (A to E), and it is therefore considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild:

  • Reduction in population size  based on an observed, estimated, inferred or suspected population size reduction of 50% over the last 10 years or three generations.
  • Extent of occurrence estimated to be less than 20,000 km² and/or the area of occupancy estimated to be less than 2000 km²
  • An estimated continuing decline of at least 10% within 10 years or three generations and/or a continuing decline, observed, projected, or inferred, in the number of mature individuals
  • Population size estimated to number fewer than 1 000 mature individuals and/or population with a very restricted area of occupancy (typically less than 20 km²) or number of locations (typically five or fewer) such that it is prone to the effects of human activities or sudden events and is thus capable of becoming Critically Endangered or even Extinct in a very short time period.
  • Quantitative analysis showing the probability of extinction in the wild is at least 10% within 100 years.

Distribution and habitat
The genus Erica contains a total of 860 species and these may be found growing from the southernmost tip of Africa to the northernmost tip of Norway. Of these 860 species, South Africa is home to 760, with the highest concentration occurring in the Caledon District, where more than 235 species occur within 4500 square kilometers (Schumann et al. 1992). Erica fairii is endemic to the Cape Peninsula occurring only on the stony and sandy slopes from Scarborough to Simonstown.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
What is an erica? In the field, it is said, that the one major character to look for are the small, narrow, folded leaves, described as ‘ericoid'. Dating back to the time of the ancient Greek civilization when Theophrastus and Pliny walked the earth, you would have heard them use the term ‘erike' as they described the heath-like shrubs around them. In 458 BC Aeschylus wrote a play called Agamemnon in which the fall of Troy is told to have been signaled from the mountain tops by the light of the fires of dried ereika. Ereiko means to break, which may describe the plant's brittle stems that would easily split with a little force. A number of references, though, suggest that ereiko describes the plant's ability to break up bladder stones, once an infusion of the leaves was ingested (Hyam & Pankhurst 1995). Fairii is derived from the name of the gentleman who discovered the plant, C. B. Fair, in 1892 amongst rocks on top of mountains near Simonstown. He was a member of the Treasury in the old Cape Parliament. Interestingly enough on the 4th October that same year an article appeared in the Cape Times which described the first official outing of The Mountain Club of South Africa up Chapman's Peak.

Ericaceae (Heath family) is a worldwide floral family consisting of about 116 genera and approximately 3000 species of shrubs, climbers, herbs and even a few trees. Erica is the largest genus within this family.

Fynbos ecology is absolutely mind-blowing! Nutrient-poor soils, hot dry summers alternating with cool wet winters, recurrent fires and an elaborate web of animal-plant interactions have created an ancient vegetation type with a complex ecology, a delicate balance and an explosive diversity. Ericas are one of the four main constituents of this vegetation type — bulbs, proteas and restios being the other three.

Erica fairii is an example of an endemic species and it is a habitat specialist. What does this mean?

A generalist is an organism that is able to thrive under a wide variety of conditions because it is able to adapt to different conditions rapidly. These organisms are able to get what they need to survive (e.g. shelter, water, nutrients) from a variety of places, and should their environment change they will simply change with it. Everything about a specialist, from its biology, anatomy, ecology etc., is designed to access particular resources under particular conditions. Specialists therefore, are experts at what they do but to their own detriment. If their environment changes (perhaps their environment gets hotter or, in the case of animals, the particular plant that they eat disappears, for example) that species will most likely become extinct. So, Erica fairii is good at what it does. It's a low-growing cliff dweller found at high altitudes on the rocky mountains of the Cape. But, if its environment changes or is damaged..?

A species is described as an endemic when it is unique to a particular geographic location, e.g. it can only be found on the Cape Peninsula and nowhere else in the world. A narrow endemic is even more restricted. Not only confined to a specific geographic region, this species can only be found on a particular soil type and/or habitat e.g. the south-facing slope of a particular ravine between 100–200 m above sea level under rocks. Endemic species are also at risk when their environment changes because they have adapted to a very particular suite of conditions.

Growing Erica fairii

Erica fairii shrubForget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair ~Kahlil Gibran. Grab a couple Erica fairii kick off your shoes and get into your garden.

Simply because they're absolutely stunning, or perhaps to help preserve some of the many species threatened with extinction, you have decided to grow some ericas. Growing ericas is not difficult in the winter rainfall region because the natural climate and the soils of this area allow for a great variety of species to be grown successfully. Of the 760 species of Erica, 50 have good garden potential but it is still up to you to carefully consider the growing requirements of each species and the particular conditions present in your garden. In the summer rainfall region the rule of thumb is to ensure that the species you ‘have your eyes on' is known to be suitable for the conditions there. Ericas grow well in pots, so, when a sunny spot with good air circulation and no cold winds is difficult to find, plant them in an attractive container and move it around as conditions change.

Like all erica species, Erica fairii may be grown from seed or cuttings, however, cuttings are easier and faster to grow and produce plants that are far more robust. Plants grown from cuttings can also be transplanted within six months, as opposed to a year for seed-grown plants, and they will flower a year earlier (Schumann et al. 1992). Considering the rarity of this species, however, seeds are likely to be your only option for propagation—regard it as a challenge!

Seed can be purchased from a number of sources, one of which is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. If you already have a plant, you should harvest seed just as the flowers start to fall naturally. The old flowers should be dried and then rubbed through a sieve. Sow seed between March and May in a seed tray not less than 100 mm deep. Seed may be soaked in a commercial smoke seed primer for 24 hours before sowing and then dried off. The seed tray, evenly filled with the well-drained acidic medium, should be well watered with a fine rose prior to sowing. Sow seed evenly and cover with a fine layer of the sieved growing medium. Water gently with a fine rose and keep out of direct sunlight and rain in an area with good air circulation. Germination occurs within 1–2 months. When the seedlings are about 10 mm tall place the tray under light shade conditions until October–December. When 20–50 mm tall, prick out and plant in a fynbos potting medium (seven parts sand and three parts sifted humus). Place in light shade and water well. Once established, shading is not required.

Take 40–50 mm cuttings from semi-hard wood two months after flowering from healthy mature plants. Heel and stem cuttings work best. Remove the leaves from the lower 1/3 of the cutting, dip into a rooting hormone and place into a tray filled with 50% peat, or crushed pine bark, and 50% polystyrene. Bottom heating between 22–24°C is applied, and once cuttings are rooted they are potted up into ½ liter plastic bags. Young cuttings must be watered well and kept under shade for a month, after which they are placed into full sun. After 3–4 months plant out.

Soil is a sensitive issue. The potting medium should be well drained and acidic, containing no manure, and have low levels of phosphate. A well-drained sandy loam with a pH between 5 and 5.5, containing about 50% humus is ideal (Brown et al. 2006). Ericas grow better when planted close together with other fynbos plants to form dense stands that cover the ground. They grow particularly well in rockeries or sloping ground but level areas will work as well. Before planting dig in some well rotted pine bark.

References and further reading

  • Baker, H.A. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1967. Ericas in Southern Africa. Purnell & Sons, Cape Town.
  • Brown, N.A.C. & Duncan, G.D. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
  • Hyam, R. & Pankhurst, R. 1995. Plants and their names. Oxford University Press, New York
  • Jackson, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Department.
  • Oliver, T. (E.G.H.) & Oliver, I. 2000. Ericas of the Cape Peninsula. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
  • Schumann, D., Kirsten, G. & Oliver, E.G.H. 1992. Ericas of South Africa. Fernwood Press, Vlaeberg.


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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
March 2011







To find out if SANBI has seed of this or other SA species, please email our seedroom.

This page forms part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute's plant information website