The Hooded Pelargonium
Willem says: 'The Phyto-Philes are for plant lovers of every size and shape, colour and flavour. As with my Colours of Wildlife column, I'll be featuring one species per article, illustrated with sketches, paintings, and/or photos. Over time I hope to be showcasing the amazing diversity of weird and wonderful plants that occur in South Africa, while also from time to time looking at the flora of other countries. While featuring many spectacular species, I'll not be neglecting the smaller, more humble kinds that are nevertheless fascinating in their own right.'
This pretty flower, Pelargonium cucullatum, is called the Hooded Pelargonium, the Tree Pelargonium, or the Wildemalva (malva is what we call pelargoniums in Afrikaans). The species is probably more prevalent in cultivation today than in the wild, being the parent species for a great many pelargonium (sometimes called geranium despite being a separate genus) cultivars grown all over the world. My picture shows one with flowers a tad showier than the ones found in the wild.
Pelargoniums are some of the most diverse flowers to be found in South Africa. The genus belongs to the Geranium family, which also includes smaller genera like Monsonia which also number some very interesting South African species. Pelargonium itself contains about 270 known species, most being found in southern Africa, but a few growing wild in eastern Africa, Madagascar, the middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and the Atlantic islands of Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha. More than half of them are in fact restricted to the shrubby Fynbos vegetation of the southwestern Cape. Most pelargoniums are small herbs, but some are larger shrubs and some have thick, succulent leaves or stems. Most have pretty, though small, flowers. The wildemalva has the showiest flowers. But pelargoniums also have fragrant leaves, the aromas of some being quite delightful. Some species are even important to the perfume industry, the aromatic compounds being distilled and concentrated. Some have flowers and leaves that are edible and used as flavourings for deserts, cakes and teas. The oils are used in aromatherapy as a relaxant. Also there are many that have very pretty leaves. There is a huge variety of leaf shapes, many being delicately divided, and some having attractive red or purple markings. Together with the flowers this makes many species quite sought after as ornamentals.
The Wildemalva’s natural range is just the very southwestern corner of the fynbos region, from about Saldanah Bay to the Cape Agulhas region. It grows on sandstone and granite slopes close to the coast; these plants can quite easily be seen on Table Mountain. The wild plant is a densely branched shrub up to 2 m/about 7’ tall, with leaves and soft stems densely covered in hairs. The lower stems become hard and woody in time. The leaves are round to kidney-shaped and sometimes slightly fleshy. The flowers are very striking when they appear in spring and summer. They are usually pinkish-purple and up to 4 cm/1.6” in diameter, and borne in masses at the tips of the stems. Sometimes the flowers are light pink or even white. The petals overlap each other and have delicate, dark ‘veins’. They attract insects like bees and butterflies, but are too delicate for sunbirds.
The species has a few traditional uses. The aromatic leaves can be crushed into small plugs and inserted into ears to relieve earaches, or applied as antiseptic dressings on wounds and sores. An infusion of the leaves is prepared and drunk for treating colic and diarrhea. It was also used for coughs, fevers and kidney problems.
Here are flowers and leaves of a pelargonium growing in my garden, which might have some of this species in its parentage. The leaves have a nice, rather wild, herbal scent. The wildemalva has leaves a bit thicker, more jaggedly toothed, and more cupped.
This pelargonium is easy to cultivate, which is a boon to its popularity. It has been introduced into England as early as 1690. The easiest way is by cuttings. These should be taken from firm, fleshy but not woody sections of stem, in autumn or summer. Leaves should be removed except for a couple at the tip. Stipules (the small, paired leafy structures at the base of the leaf stem) should be removed too. Let the cutting dry out a few hours, then plant it in a coarse, well-draining mixture. Coating the tip with a root-stimulating hormone will improve results. Make a hole in the soil first, rather than pushing the cutting in, which may damage its tip. Plant it not too deep, just an inch or two into the soil. Keep the soil moist but not wet – this species like others growing in dry regions is prone to rot in too wet conditions. Roots will form in a month or two … you will know, in that your cutting will flourish at that period instead of dying. Let it grow for another week or two at which point you can plant it out.
Growing pelargoniums from seeds is also possible. The seeds are fine with a very interesting attachment: a long spiraling, fluffy ‘tail’ that helps them disperse in the wind. But this also helps the seed when it has landed. Wind that continues blowing on the fluffy tip, because of the twisted shaft, causes the seed to turn around and ‘drill’ itself into the ground, safely burying it and preparing it for germination!
If your plant sets seed, you have to be quick to collect them before they blow away. You can collect the seed-heads just before they spit open, so as to more easily gather the seeds. Sow them on a sandy medium similar to that for growing cuttings, and sprinkle a thin layer of sand over them. Keep moist but not wet, and in a shady but warm position. Seed can germinate in two to three weeks.
This pelargonium is best grown in large, sunny beds. Its natural distribution receives winter rainfall, but it is adaptable to different climates, provided it is not too wet. It can stand some frost. Many pelargonium cultivars are kept as houseplants, being excellent for sunny windowsills in places experiencing cold climates.