The Cape Flats Erica, Erica verticillata, a plant that used to be found only in Cape Town, thought to have been extinct for two centuries after it was last seen near Zeekoevlei and believed to be lost to the world, was discovered in a Pretoria Park and returned to Cape Town. The plant was also found in Kirstenbosch Gardens as well as in Vienna in Austria.
Erica verticillata once grew as a narrow-range endemic, restricted to the southern edges of the Cape Flats Sand Fynbos in Cape Town. However, the remaining percentage of its host vegetation type was below the required levels of conservation, placing the species in a perilous state. It subsequently succumbed to the combined pressures of urban development, small-scale farming, draining of wetlands, alien vegetation invasion, and extensive picking by flower sellers owing to its summer-flowering pattern when little else flowers on the Cape Flats.
By 1950, this plant was extinct.
However, this changed in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when five plants were discovered in cultivation across the globe, the most remarkable being the material in the Belvedere Palace Garden in Austria, grown from cuttings taken from the Cape in 1792/93 and between 1997 and 2003. The cuttings from the five collections were reintroduced to Rondevlei, where they thrived and produced a viable seed.
Since then, two other populations have been established in natural Cape Flats Sand Fynbos habitat at the Kenilworth Race Course and the Tokai section of the Table Mountain National Park.
March 2013 was significant in the history of restoring Erica verticillata when the first ecological burn was put through the population at Rondevlei since the plant was reintroduced in 1997. This was a first step in re-establishing a wild population and downgrading the species to Critically Endangered. Three generations of plant are needed to achieve this.
Thus, it was with eager anticipation that officials from the Biodiversity Management Branch set fire to approximately 150 of these plants. It was expected that the fire would race through the two-hectare population, since the vegetation was tinder-dry and a good 15 km/h northerly wind was fanning the flames. The officials stood ready with cameras as the flames engulfed the first plant. There was a burst of flames as the leaves torched up the tall bush and then, most unexpectedly, the fire passed on, leaving behind a dead plant skeleton. The officials thought that the first plant was an anomaly and keenly watched the next bush. The same thing happened; after a brief burst of burning leaves, the fire died down. What was more fascinating was that even the old dry twigs were not burning. This is not synonymous with fynbos fire behaviour in the dry fire season.
Although this behaviour was not anticipated, it is possible that the plant had evolved to dampen fires in order to protect its ripe seed capsules, thereby optimising post-fire seed dispersal. This plant is revealed as a master of its fire-prone landscape where it has managed to live in the midst of highly combustible neighbours who like their fires hot and furious, while taming these same flames to provide a cool fire environment for its fine seeds.
Now we wait in anticipation for the next two fire cycles so that we can say with confidence that the exquisite Erica verticillata is no longer extinct. Until then Erica verticillata will remain considered ‘Extinct in the Wild’ until it has regenerated naturally and proved to be self-sustaining.
‘I am fascinated by the story of the Erica verticillata. There is no better designer than nature and this plant is an inspiration. Though removed from its natural habitat for two centuries, the plant is making a remarkable come back from extinction. Twenty-one seedlings, the first generation of Cape Flats Erica, are set in the wild. I will, with the help of the officials, watch with admiration the progress of this wonderful plant. I want to encourage members of the public to visit our nature reserves to enjoy nature and get an opportunity to meet our Erica verticillata,’ said the City’s Deputy Mayor and Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Alderman Eddie Andrews.
- Issued by Media Office, City of Cape Town