Spanish Heath (Erica lusitanica)

Family: Ericaceae

Growth Habit: A small to medium sized woody shrub, Spanish Heath can grow to 2.5 m in suitable conditions.  Leaves are small, fine and pine like, 4-7 mm long. Young stems have unbranched hairs 1 mm long. It usually grows as a dense multi-stemmed bush, however inappropriate slashing can thicken it up so that can becomes more hedge like.

Type of Plant: Evergreen, woody erect shrub

Flowers: Small, rounded, bell shaped flowers, 4-5 mm long, are white to pale pink in colour and are borne in large clusters at the end of branches.

Fruit/Seed: Each Spanish Heath bush is capable of producing millions of small, speck like seeds.

Dispersal: Wind and water easily carry the small seeds. Any machinery that passes through or over the bushes when in flower and/or seed is likely to pick up and carry the seed further.

Differentiated from the similar Heath species:

  • Spanish Heath (E. lusitanica):  Larger flowers 4-5 mm. Leaves long, narrow and generally crowded in whorls of 4. Young stems have unbranched hairs 1mm long. Flowers winter to spring.
  • Besom Heath (E. scorparia):  Flowers white  / green to reddish, bell-shaped, 1–2 mm long; in spring to summer. Leaves 3.5–7 mm long, in well spaced whorls of 3 or 4. Young stems hairless. Large lignotuber.
  • Tree Heath (E. arborea): Not yet in the Tamar. Tall shrub to 5 metres. Slightly larger white flowers 2-3 mm long. Leaves long, narrow and generally crowded in whorls of 4. Young stems with branched hairs 1 mm long.
  • Berry Heath (E. baccans): Not known to be in the Tamar. Flowers are bright pink (magenta), globular, approx. 5 mm long, in bunches at stem tips. Leaves up to 9 mm long in whorls of 4. Young stems are hairless.
  • The native Ericas tend to be smaller, more sparse bushes. They flower at the same time as Spanish Heath but can be distinguished from it by having more angular flowers which are usually red or white in colour and leaves which are to more prickly and triangular in shape.

Distribution: Spanish Heath can be found in most areas of Tasmania. Originally planted for the dried flower market many years ago, it now is well established along roadsides, in run down pasture and in wastelands. Once it is established in these areas, it is able to invade surrounding bush lands. Spanish Heath is an environmental weed. It does not survive in well maintained and grazed pasture.

Status: Spanish Heath is a declared weed in Tasmania. It has the potential for economic impact as it can invade agricultural land used for grazing. The potential costs of removing it from conservation areas is enormous. It is capable of completely overwhelming the native vegetation. Present roadside management, slashing when seeding, is enhancing the spread of this weed throughout the state.

Weed Impact:

  • Spanish Heath is highly invasive. Now that it is well established on the road sides, its range is rapidly expanding. It is now so common that many people think it is a native. Indiscriminate roadside slashing is spreading  the spread the weed.
  • Once established along the roads it moves into bush lands, completely dominating the under-story and out competing the native heath land vegetation.
  • Very competitive in nutrient poor soils.
  • Readily invades and takes over grassland and heathland, dominating sites and resulting in a loss of pasture and native species.
  • Easily spread along roadsides and then into neighbouring agricultural and native vegetation areas.
  • Invades grasslands and therefore changes habitat for species requiring grassy systems.
  • Unpalatable to stock.
  • Known to cause serious growth problems in crop plants, particularly grass and clover species due to allelopathic properties.
  • Readily spreads into bare areas after disturbance such as clearing and fire.
  • “Not palatable” – Not eaten by stock, only limited grazing by goats.
  • Highly resistant to fire and water logging, tolerant of drought and may be tolerant to salinity.

Control Methods:

  • Dispose of removed material carefully to avoid regeneration: burn if possible, otherwise pile where the plants won’t stem layer.
  • Ensure all machinery and equipment are clean and washed down when entering your property or leaving an infested areas. Washdown Guidelines for Weed and Disease Control.
  • Slashing (Jul – Oct). Slashing, while a temporary measure, will stop flowering/seeding if done during winter (flowering period).
  • Hand pulling (Feb – Jul). In autumn and winter (pre flowing) when soil is moist, hand pulling and grubbing is easy control method for minor infestations.
  • Ploughing (all year). The use of cultivation in dry sandy soil with a cultivation within 3 years has given control.
  • Education (all year). The general public needs to be educated that this plant is an environmental weed and should not be planted especially along roadsides.
  • Spraying (Nov – Feb). Herbicides such as Grazon can be used as a foliar spray (2.5 ml Grazon DS R/L). Glyphosate has also been suggested. Both Grazon and glyphosate could be applied (neat) as a cut stump or basal bark application. DPIPWE Herbicides for Control of Spanish Heath.
  • For more information on control visit DPIPWE website.

N.B. Always check the herbicide label before use.