Winter Seasoning

In colder climates, heath gardens are often created to provide winter colour, but in South Africa most heathers flower in spring or summer. However, there is a common heath, Erica imbricata, that flowers here at Phillipskop from June onwards. The flowers are white but they have contrasting dark brown exserted stamens. (Please note this is “exserted”, which means pushed out the end of the flower, not “exerted”; they have not been doing a lot of exercise.) The scattering of these black and white flowers over the bush has given it the common name of Salt & Pepper Heath, as though someone has been shaking a good dose of seasoning all over the plant.

Mass of flowers of Erica imbricata (Ericaceae)
Erica imbricata, commonly known as Salt-and-Pepper Heath because of its black and white flowers
Habit of Erica imbricata (Ericaceae)
Erica imbricata often forms extensive patches of white bushes in the fynbos.

South Africa really is the home of heathers. The genus Erica has about 860 species from the northern reaches of Scandinavia to the southern tip of Africa. Almost 90% of this species occur exclusively in South Africa. Erica imbricata is one of these endemic species, but it is widespread for a Cape heath occurring throughout the Cape flora region from Vanrhynsdorp to Port Elizabeth. It is not particular about its habitat but does not like it too dry during the winter. Where it grows, it is often abundant and can colour a whole patch of fynbos when in flower. At Phillipskop, it is common along the track from reception to Candlewood valley.

The scientific name comes from the overlapping (imbricate) bract and calyx of the flowers, which almost hide the true corolla. The bracts and calyx are the same bright white colour, so this does not detract from the ornamental value of the plant. The flowers are about 4mm long and clustered in 3s at the end of the short branches. The combination of these characters, the exserted anthers, and winter-flowering time (though it can flower at other times too), make this quite a distinctive species.

Close-up of flower of Erica imbricata (Ericaceae)
Close-up of Erica imbricata showing the white overlapping bract and calyx, almost as long as the corolla

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