Discoloring Ericas

Erica discolor has started to bloom around Phillipskop. It is easy to spot but has a rather misleading scientific name. To discolor in English means to change the colour of an object, usually to one that is less attractive than the original. Once you have seen the plant, I do not believe you could say that Erica discolor was lacking in attractiveness. It has a long pinkish to reddish tube with a white rim around its mouth. The flowers are not held very neatly on the branches, pointing out in all directions, but it is still very much an eye-catching combination.

The confusion comes from the change in the meaning of discolor from the original Latin to our modern usage in English. The Latin word has two parts: the prefix "dis-" meaning "away from" or "apart" and "color" meaning… OK I won't insult you explaining that one. So "discolor" just means that the color goes away from or changes. It does not mean that it becomes any dirtier, duller or fades. In plant names therefore it is often used to imply that the colour of some part of the plant changes. In this case, the flower tube changes from red to white.

Plant of Erica discolor (Ericaceae)

Erica discolor

Close-up of flower of Erica discolor (Ericaceae)

Erica discolor flowers

The flowers of Erica discolor are perfectly adapted for pollination by sunbirds. The curve of the tube matches that found in the sunbird's bill. The discolorous end presumably helps to act as a guide, showing up in a contrasting colour where the bird is to enter its bill to get the nectar (although there are other species that don't have this feature so the birds seem to be bright enough to work it out themselves).

The species is quite widespread along the southern Cape coastal mountains. We are at the far western end of its range but it extends east as far as Port Elizabeth. Unfortunately, there are several other species that also have the contrasting two-tone flower tube, so one has to look closely at the leaves, anthers and hairs to be sure of identifying it correctly*. Erica discolor is a good garden plant, especially for attracting sunbirds, providing colour in late summer, though the bushes can look rather untidy.

Botanical Bit

*For those botanically minded folk – one has to confirm that it is a resprouting shrub with leaves in whorls of 3, the flowers are held on the end of short side-branches and the anthers do not extend beyond the end of the tube and have appendages.

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