Even botanists often ignore the smaller species of Erica, such as Erica paucifolia, which have flowers only a couple of millimetres long. There are just too many of them and they differ on small characteristics. But this means that you can be surprised when you do look a bit closer. I went out recently to find the wind-pollinated Erica exleeana at Phillipskop. Another botanist had recorded it growing on the reserve but I had not consciously looked for this Erica before. Erica exleeana is a small hairy heath, with tiny reddish flowers and a long protruding style. Within a few metres of the house I started to find some plants that fitted the description.
The plants were only about 20cm high, growing in the understorey of taller fynbos. The leaves were dark greenish covered with long spreading hairs. The flowers too were in dense hairy clusters but only a few millimetres long and dark red, making them hard to spot. The flowers had a long protruding style and long protruding stamens. It was this latter character that made me stop and reconsider. For when I got back to my books to identify Erica exleeana, the drawing and photographs unequivocally showed that the stamens for that species did not extend beyond the mouth of the flower, only the style. I was somewhat thrown by this and therefore had to relook at the plant in my hand to try and determine what species I was actually dealing with.
It took quite a bit of searching but eventually I found a good fit: Erica paucifolia subsp. paucifolia. Apart from having hairy leaves and calyx, it is identified by its short corolla, long style and long stamens. A new species for the reserve was recorded. However, it then surprised me to read that the plant was classified as Endangered in the Red List of South African Plants. The subspecies has only been recorded a few times from Houwhoek, Kleinmond, Hermanus and Stanford. Furthermore, the last collections from the Hermanus and Stanford area were in 1931. Ted Oliver, the Erica expert, wrote about this in 2000 stating that “with no recent records from the eastern area, there is a possibility that the subspecies has died out there. Clearly any populations on the sandy flats around Hermanus would have been recorded during the excellent collections made there in the last decade by the botanical fraternity of Hermanus”.
It was therefore necessary to assess how many plants of Erica paucifolia subsp. paucifolia we actually had on the reserve. It soon became evident that this species was widespread and common on the southern slopes, with some patches containing hundreds of plants. It is just that the plants are easily overlooked as dark in colour, barely noticeable even when in flower, and shorter than the surrounding fynbos. The species therefore may well occur elsewhere between here and Hermanus but been overlooked.
Ironically, while carrying out the assessment, I also found several plants of Erica exleeana. It is interesting to think that had I found Erica exleeana first and identified it as such, whether I would ever have noted that we had another very similar species growing even more widely.
Both species are small shrubs about 20cm high, with hairy stems and leaves, the leaves are arranged in 3s, the flowers are only 2-3mm long, a pinkish red colour. They are not particularly closely related and can be easily distinguished from each other as follows:
Erica exleeana has no bracts subtending the calyx, which is almost as long as the corolla, a hairy ovary, and 8 stamens included within the corolla. The style expands at the end into a broad round disc with four tubercles. It is found from the Cape Peninsula to Bredasdorp.
Erica paucifolia subsp. paucifolia has 3 bracts subtending the calyx, which is less than half as long as the corolla, a non-hairy ovary, and 4 stamens protruding almost twice the length of the corolla. The style is barely expanded at the end. It is restricted to Kleinmond, Houw Hoek and the Klein River Mountains.
The other subspecies of Erica paucifolia are also endangered. Subsp. ciliata has a glabrous calyx and occurs around Babylon’s Tower and Shaw’s Pass. Subsp. squarrosa has an 8-angled corolla and occurs at the Caledon Swartberg and Riviersonderend Mountains.
The original (rather stylised) painting of Erica paucifolia can be seen here: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/164237#page/117/