Our gardening romance with the most exotic and tropical-looking South African plants has very deep roots. Some 250 years ago, Scottish botanist Francis Masson was the first of the global plant explorers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to study these plants. Masson brought to horticulture more than 400 species of South African plants such as the king protea, geranium, cineraria, calla lily, bird of paradise, red-hot-poker, Agapanthus and Amaryllis belladonna. He deserves many thanks for his contributions to our garden world!
Masson explored a large area at the most southern tip of Africa, including the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown. A global biodiversity hot spot, the Cape Region is one of the richest temperate plant zones and the source of a vast number of our modern horticultural plants.
Floral Fantasia – The Cut Flower Trade
One of my favorite Masson introductions is the bird of paradise, Strelitzia reginae. Now grown in almost every tropical garden worldwide, this genus bears the name of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Popular as a pot plant for conservatory gardens, it is most often seen as a cut flower in regal floral arrangements. On our latest trip to South Africa, we enjoyed seeing the butter-yellow blooms on massive plantings of ‘Mandela’s Gold’ cultivar developed at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, and used as an elegant landscape material in Capetown. Great in Missouri as a patio plant, it does great indoors during winter, before we roll them onto the terrace in the spring or dig them in to the summer border for an architectural and showy element.
The most iconic South African plant is the protea. Not grown in our gardens, we appreciate this special group for the fabulous blushing rose king protea (P. cynaroides), which serves as a dramatic and contemporary centerpiece in elegant tropical floral arrangements. This distinctive blossom is the national flower of South Africa.
The Perfect Pelargonium
We must thank South Africa and Francis Masson for our most brilliant and popular bedding plants: the colorful and reliable geraniums. Taxonomic separation from the genus Geranium came centuries ago, but the common name is still used to describe both Geraniums and Pelargoniums. The true geraniums, of the genus Geranium, are also found wild in South Africa, but most are too tender for our Midwest winters and do not share the commercial success of the Pelargonium clan. If you want to grow Geraniums species here, use our native ones.
Of the more than 200 wild species of Pelargonium found in southern Africa, more than 50 were included in the original introductions by Masson and have been used to hybridize the commercial ‘geraniums’ we know and love.
The scented geraniums, happy in our Missouri herb gardens, are from South Africa, as well. They are used for fragrant oil production for perfumes, potpourris and natural insect repellents.
Popular South African House Plants
Our winter window gardens are brightened by many South African horticultural selections. The Cape primrose, Streptocarpus primulifolius, makes a great indoor plant. With a rosette of long, hairy strap-like leaves, a coronet of trumpet-shaped flowers rises several inches above them to brighten a low-light corner. Botanists place the trailing species, Streptocarpus saxorum, in the subspecies streptocarpella. Wonderful as a hanging basket, the gray, fuzzy, thumbprint sized leaves and delicate little lilac trumpets on two-inch high wiry stems make an attractive, easy-to-grow display.
The natal or bush lily, Clivia miniata, was one of the first South African plants I ever grew. The dark green leaves and bright flowers enlivened my college dormitory room. This bulb has rich clusters of orange flowers with a yellow blush in the throat.
New South African Introductions
Not all of the South African plants have been in our gardens for centuries. New introductions are coming along at a regular pace. For us, the selections may be for more winter hardiness or use as colorful summer bedding plants. Here are a few of the newest choices for your summer garden:
• Cultivar ‘Coral Canyon’ twinspur, Diascia integerrima, is a delicate-leaved spring beauty with repeat bloom that resembles an open-faced snapdragon. From the East Cape Drakensberg mountain range, twinspur is a hardy perennial and has been a great success for Julie.
• The lovely pale blue Cape leadwort (Plumbago auriculata) is a fresh and floriferous tender shrubby vine, which may be kept over the winter in a bright location and rolled out to the terrace for summer.
• Julie Hess has found a new favorite with the Cape fuchsia (Phygelius capensis and the P. x rectushybrids). She started growing the cultivar ‘Devil’s Tears’ eight or nine years ago as an annual; but now, with good drainage and a thick layer of mulch, finds Cape fuchsia to be a reliably hardy perennial in city gardens.
Visiting South Africa is not just about seeing elephants, leopards and rhinos. For a botanist or gardener, the country is filled with dramatic vistas, unique natural landscapes, stunning private nature preserves and magnificent national botanical gardens. Many famous flowers are in-your-face gorgeous, but some of the most special plants are the tiny fragrant bulbs best enjoyed while kneeling in adoration. With so much to recommend, this column could not begin to hold it all. Look for upcoming columns on South African bulbs and The Darling Daisies of South Africa. In the meantime, fix a hot cup of herb tea, pull out your new plant catalogs, prop your feet up and remember that it is summer in South Africa!