Flask Heath

With over 800 species of Erica in the Cape, it is not surprising that inventiveness is needed in describing the names of the species. In fact it is even harder than that as many species have inadvertently been described more than once. In total, over 2,000 different names have been used to describe Erica species, although many of these are synonyms of each other now. The unusual name Erica ampullacea was chosen because of the flask-shaped flowers. The corolla is tubular, but swollen at the bottom, before narrowing to a neck just below the lobes that spread outwards. The author likened these to a bottle or flask in which water is normally kept (at least in the 18th Century when it was first described). The name “ampullacea” comes from the Latin word ampulla for a small rounded vessel used to hold holy water or oil. We derive the word “ampoule” from it, used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

Erica ampullacea (Ericaceae)
Erica ampullacea

Erica ampullacea is one of the most distinctive and beautiful of the winter-flowering heaths at Phillipskop. The shrubs are small and usually spindly, with just a few branches topped by a tight cluster of four pink and white flowers with their distinctive shape. The leaves are packed together, pressed upwards along the stem and quite stiff, right up to the base of the flowers and as the flowers lack any notable pedicel, the leaves appear to cluster around the base of the flowers, which are held quite erect. Similar species found in the Klein River Mountains include Erica fastigiata and Erica hendricksei, which have similar coloured flowers with spreading lobes, but the tube is not swollen towards the base as it is in Erica ampullacea. Erica aristata and Erica irbyana do have the swollen tube but in these species the flowers have a distinct pedicel and are not so tightly clustered and erect at the top of the stem.

Erica ampullacea (Ericaceae)
Flask-shaped flowers of Erica ampullacea with the leaves overlapping the base of the flowers
Erica fastigiata var. coventryana (Ericaceae)
Flowers of Erica fastigiata have a narrow tube that is not swollen towards the base
Erica irbyana (Ericaceae)
Erica irbyana has similar flask-shaped flowers but they are on a clear pedicel and distant from the leaves
Erica ampullacea (Ericaceae)
The spindly habit of Erica ampullacea consists of a few erect stems topped by 4 erect flowers

Erica ampullacea is one of the species that we get here that is an Agulhas Plain endemic. The distribution is from around Cape Agulhas, north and west to as far as Phillipskop. Indeed Phillipskop is currently the most northerly known locality for this species. Erica ampullacea is not found to the west along the Klein River Mountain range at either Fernkloof or Vogelgat. The species is found here on the ridge, and south-facing slopes just below, of the Klein River Mountains, suggesting that it needs relatively cool conditions to flourish, but it is found at lower altitudes to the south. The flowering time at Phillipskop is restricted to July and August, but to the south it can be found in flower as late as November. Unfortunately, this is one of the many beautiful Erica species that you are unlikely to find in cultivation, so the best way to enjoy it is to come for a walk in the southern Overberg area at the right time of the year.

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