The Australian Heath Family - Background

Family Matters

It has been recognised for many years that the group of plants commonly referred to as the 'Australian heaths' are closely related to plants in the cosmopolitan heath family, the Ericaceae, which had been regarded as being poorly represented in Australia, with only a handful of species occurring here. The Ericaceae is widely distributed in the northern Hemisphere and Africa and includes such well known garden plants as Erica, Rhododendron, Azalea and Pieris. Several Erica species (notably Erica lusitanica) have become naturalised in Australia, having escaped from garden cultivation.

Until recently the Australian heaths had been regarded as being sufficiently distinct from members of the Ericaceae to warrant being placed in a separate family, the Epacridaceae, which takes its name from the well known genus Epacris. However, recent research has indicated that members of the Epacridaceae are more closely related to the Ericaceae than previously thought. As a result, most botanical institutions now recognise that members of the Epacridaceae are more correctly placed within the Ericaceae as the subfamily Styphelioideae. As a result, the name 'Epacridaceae' is now obsolete.

While most Australian members of the heath family belong to the subfamily Styphelioideae there are a few species in two other subfamilies. Australian members of the Ericaceae can be summarised as follows:

  • Subfamily Ericoideae: One genus - Rhododendron
  • Subfamily Styphelioideae: Around 40 genera, including Acrothamnus, Acrotriche, Agiortia, Archeria, Astroloma, Brachyloma, Budawangia, Conostephium, Croninia, Cyathopsis, Dracophyllum, Epacris, Leptecophylla, Leucopogon, Lissanthe, Melichrus, Monotoca, Needhamiella, Oligarrhena, Pentachondra, Planocarpa, Prionotes, Richea, Rupicola, Sprengelia, Styphelia, Trochocarpa, Woollsia
  • Subfamily Vaccinioideae: Three genera - Gaultheria, Agapetes, Pernettya

Characteristics

The family Ericaceae is widely distributed worldwide, particularly in the northern hemisphere. However, the subfamily Styphelioideae is distributed mainly in Australia with a few species being found in countries to the north of Australia as well as in New Zealand, the Pacific islands and South America (see map).

Subfamily Styphelioideae Distribution   
Worldwide distribution of the Subfamily Styphelioideae

  

A distinguishing feature of the subfamily Styphelioideae compared to other members of the Ericaceae is the palmate venation of the leaves of most members of the former. "Palmate venation" refers to the way that several main veins radiate from the base of the leaf. Because of the small leaves in many species in the subfamily Styphelioideae, the veins often appear to be parallel.

A number of species of Australian Ericaceae are attractive plants for cultivation due to their prolific and colourful flowers. The genus Epacris is the most commonly cultivated member of the family and one member of the genus, Epacris impressa (common or pink heath) is the floral emblem of Victoria. Apart from Epacris, other members of the subfamily Styphelioideae are not often seen in general cultivation but genera grown by enthusiasts include Astroloma, Dracophyllum, Leucopogon, Prionotes, Richea, Sprengelia, Styphelia and Woollsia.

   Palmate venation
   Palmate venation on
Leucopogon lanceolatus

Photo: Brian Walters

Members of the other Australian subfamilies are uncommon in cultivation apart from the spectacular Rhododendron lochiae and occasionally Agapetes meiniana, an attractive semi-climbing species with waxy tubular flowers. Both of these species are native to rainforest in north Queensland.

Several Australian members of the family were introduced into cultivation in Europe within a few years of British exploration of the east coast of Australia in the late 1700s - early 1800s. Species grown in Europe included species of Astroloma, Brachyloma, Epacris, Leucopogon, Lissanthe, Melichrus, Monotoca, Styphelia and Woollsia.

For the most part, the Australian Ericaceae are small shrubs but a few species occur as small trees. They can be found in a range of habitats and are a common component of low, exposed vegetation known as heathland. Often they will be found in areas of constant moisture but also occur in temperate open forest and woodland, sub-alpine areas and the coastal zone. They tend to be absent in the arid zone and only a few are found in rainforests.


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