Fynbos species back from brink of extinction

Erica Vericillata, commonly known as the Cape Flats Erica, was near extinction with only two plants left in South Africa when Dalton Gibbs, pictured, and Anthony Hopkins started rehabilitating it at the Rondevlei False Bay Nature Reserve. Picture: Willem Law

Cape Town – The first South African plant species to potentially be brought back from extinction is in full blossom this week at Rondevlei, but while its beautiful pink flowers receive all the attention, the real stars are 120 small seedlings – the first new Cape Flats Ericas to grow in the wild in a century.

This fynbos species gave Heathfield its name – but has been extinct in the wild since the early 20th century.

Decades after it disappeared from the sandy plains of the Cape Flats, the Erica verticillata has travelled an extraordinary journey across the globe to finally be re-established in its natural home.

Also known as whorled heath, the plant was last collected from a natural population in 1908. Anthony Hitchcock, nursery manager at Kirstenbosch, was instrumental in coaxing it back to life in South Africa.

Dalton Gibbs, area head of the south district for the City of Cape Town’s Environmental Resource Department, oversees the pioneer plantation at Rondevlei Nature Reserve.

Copy of cw KAY 4 Wetland – Cape Flats erica (Erica verticillata) – Pic City of Cape Town
The Cape Flats Erica (Erica verticillata)
“It flowers in the height of summer – an anomaly among fynbos,” Gibbs said. “It’s the only flower open now, so it has pollinators at its beck and call.”

It has been a journey of many years for Gibbs, watching the flower establish itself, and watching some plants die and fail to reproduce. “In 2001, we planted them. In 2013, we burned them.”

Like many fynbos species, the Erica verticillata needs fire in order to release its seeds, but if the fire burns too intensely, the seeds will be destroyed.

The patch of sandy soil in the land between Rondevlei and Grassy Park is now a spectacular sight of hope as 120 new seedlings have broken through the soil, promising to revive the species.

“It needs to live for three generations in the wild before it’s officially considered out of extinction,” Gibbs said. “This is generation one. We’ve reached that first milestone.”

Its journey back to life – and back to its Cape Flats roots – began in 1984, when Kirstenbosch Erica expert Deon Kotze found a single specimen growing in Protea Park in Pretoria. Later the same year, a plant was found in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, London, but it turned out to be a hybrid, incapable of reproducing.

In 1990 the foreman at Kirstenbosch, Adonis Adonis, discovered a mature Erica verticillata growing in a clearing behind the Braille Trail in the botanical gardens.

In 1994, 10 clones of the Pretoria specimen were planted in Rondevlei. Only one survived. Then, in 2001, Gibbs planted the cultivar discovered by Adonis. These, at last, produced viable seed.

Yet another genetically unique plant was later discovered in the Belvedere Palace Gardens in Vienna, Austria. It had been sent to Austria in the 1790s.

Cuttings were brought back to Kirstenbosch in 2006 for cultivation.

The flowering Cape Flats Erica can be seen at Rondevlei, while less mature plants are growing at Kenilworth Racecourse and in Tokai.

Cape Argus

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