The Phyto-Philes: Finger-Leaved Groundsel

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Finger-Leaved Groundsel

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Finger-Leaved Groundsel

Here I have for you a plant that deserves to be much better known! This is the finger-leaved groundsel, Senecio barbertonicus. Groundsels are members of the Daisy Family. They comprise the genus Senecio as well as some related genera like the giant groundsels, Dendrosenecio, bizarre, huge plants that grow on Africa's highest mountains – Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, the Ruwenzori Mountains, and others. The genus Senecio, broadly conceived, is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, comprising something like two thousand species! Only the genus Euphorbia, which I've featured here a fewtimes can rival it for diversity. The daisy family as a whole happens to be one of the largest of all plant families. The name Senecio comes from the Latin word 'senex' meaning 'old person', and refers to the tufts of white hairs that are attached to the seeds of these plants. These tufts help the seeds to disperse in the wind, like those of dandelions (which are also members of the daisy family). This particular groundsel's species name refers to the town of Barberton, situated in a very interesting and diverse botanic region – although the species indeed occurs much more widely, also being quite common here around Polokwane and indeed over much of northern South Africa. But it was first collected close to Barberton, in the late Nineteenth Century, by the famed plant collector Ernest Edward Galpin, for which several South African species have been named.

Finger-Leaved Groundsel

Most groundsels are plain old daisies, small herbaceous plants with yellow flowers. But there are many exceptions, apart from those giant groundsels. Here in South Africa especially, we are blessed with a large number of groundsels that are succulent. And succulent in different ways! Most are leaf succulents, but with leaves of a variety of different shape: flat and broad, almost spherical, cigar-shaped, long and cyllindrical, finger-shaped and more. Some species have thickened, succulent stems as well.

The finger-leaved groundsel has, as you may gather, finger-like leaves. It is the largest of the local succulent groundsel species, occasionally reaching 2 m/7' or so in height and spread. In nature, when growing in the open, it is typically a spreading bush, the twigs, branches and finger-leaves forming a dense crown. But it sometimes grows in dense bush or thickets in between other plants, in which case it is more sparse with longer branches, making use of the support of the surrounding vegetation. In such cases it can grow even taller; I've seen plants exceeding 3 m in height. Its typical habitat is fairly dry, rocky hills, but it can grow in open, flat savannah or grassland. Its succulent, finger-like leaves help it to conserve water during the long dry season. It remains green and fresh-looking year-round. It is also quite cold resistant, often being found in mountainous regions and on the cold Highveld in central-northern South Africa. It is quite common, even abundant in some places. It also ranges into our neighbour countries of Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and is not at all threatened.

Finger-Leaved Groundsel

The flowers of the finger-leaved groundsel are small, but can cover the bushes in the flowering season. Like other daisy flowers, what we think of as a flower is actually a compound flower or flowerhead, consisting of numerous tiny individual flowers. In the daisy family, there are basically two kinds of flowerheads: the typical daisy kind, and the thistle kind. The daisy-type flowerheads have a central area of disc florets, surrounded by the ray florets which look like the petals of an ordinary flower. The Barberton Daisy is a good example. The thistle-type flowerheads only have the central disc florets, the ray florets being absent. The Coral Kleinia is a good example of one of those. The finger-leaved groundsel is also of this type, with only the disc florets being present. They are yellow to orange-yellow, appearing in masses at the tips of the twigs beyond the leaves. They are rich in nectar and attract a variety of insects, such as honey bees and butterflies – particularly the Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui.

Growing the Finger-Leaved Groundsel

Finger-Leaved Groundsel

This species is extremely easy to grow from cuttings, so that it's not really necessary to think about growing it from seeds. The cuttings are best taken in early Spring and can consist of a single twig with a few leaves at the tip. This should be left to dry and form scar tissue for a week or so before planting. Use a sandy, well-draining soil with a bit of compost to root it in. Rooting should happen in a week or few. Keep it in the shade while rooting, and once it is established, slowly habituate it to the sun. It can grow in light shade but in full sun, it develops its best shape, compact and spreading.

This groundsel is great for a rock garden, which mimics the kind of habitat in which it usually grows. It is a fairly slow grower but lives for many decades, and even small plants are nicely shaped and interesting to look at. This is a good species for training into a little succulent bonsai; it reacts well to pruning and its stems are fairly soft and easily bent and shaped. If you look at my photos, you'll see that in nature they often grow into gnarly shapes, which would be nice to mimic in a bonsai plant. Being able to withstand some cold, this species can grow in the open (but with some protection in the form of surrounding rocks and plants) in the southern USA and southern Europe, where the winters are not too wet. In colder regions, they will need hothouses, but can also be grown as container plants indoors. They can even be grown in small pots on sunny windowsills, in this case remaining small and neat.

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