Scientific name: Erica coccinea
Plant type: Perennial shrub
Environment: Full shade in well-drained soil
Bloom: Drooping, tubular flowers in colors ranging from red, pink, orange to yellow and green
Uses: Specimen plant
Erica coccinea L., or the small tassel heath, is a small shrub endemic to the Western Cape of South Africa. It is well loved for its bright flowers and popularity with pollinators. The species was first described and named by European botanists in 1753 in Carolus Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum and its name is a bit of a misnomer. The specific epithet coccinea comes from the Latin term for scarlet, in reference to the color of the flower. Unfortunately for those looking to the scientific name for a major clue about the plant, the flowers of E. coccinea are only sometimes scarlet or red.
In its native range Erica coccinea is highly variable. Within the Western Cape the small tassel heath is found in multiple habitats ranging from rocky outcrops to cool mountain slopes. The flowers, which bloom at different times throughout the year, can be seen in a variety of colors including red, pink, yellow, orange, and green. The plant is pollinated almost exclusively by orange-breasted sunbirds (Anthobaphes violacea), an endemic species in the region. Bees and other insects will also act as “nectar robbers” boring holes into the base of the flower to obtain the nectar they are unable to reach in the long, tubular flower.
Erica coccinea is a fynbos plant. Fynbos is a biome in South Africa with a Mediterranean climate, where many of the plants, including E. coccinea, are fire adapted. E. coccinea, being as variable as it is, does not always display the same fire adaptability. Some small tassel heaths have developed an underground storage structure known as a lignotuber in order to resprout quickly after a fire. Others instead are known as “reseeders” which produce many seeds that are stored throughout the fires. These seeds are then dropped into the soil through various mechanisms which allows them to create a seedbank in the soil that can germinate after the fires have moved through. These different adaptations can occur within the same population of plants, and researchers continue to study the species to learn more about these distinct adaptations.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Victoria Stewart. Photos by Andrew Massyn and Victoria Stewart.