Pelargonium tricolor Curtis
Common names: three-colour storksbill, three-colour pelargonium (Eng.); gesiggiemalva (Afr.)
A fascinating, low-growing, floriferous shrublet that displays some of the most amazing natural variation of flower colour forms and shapes.
Pelargonium tricolor is a rhizomatous, low-growing shrublet of 300 × 250 mm. The leaves are narrowly lanceolate to ovate or obovate. In some leaves, two distinctly larger lobes are found at the base. Margins are unevenly incised or toothed, with red tips. Leaf-blade length varies from10 to 45 mm and the width from 2 to 14 mm. Both sides are covered with white hairs that are directed towards the base of the leaf. Stipules are subulate, persistent and red-brown.
Flowers are 2–4 on short, branching peduncles. They are bi- or tri-coloured and about 25 mm in diameter. The colour of the two upper petals varies from white, pink to dark red. The three lower petals are predominantly white, with the occasional narrow red streak that extends from the base. Three to five filaments bear very small, dark-coloured anthers. The hypanthium or calyx tube is 1–2 mm long and relatively shorter than the pedicel.
Flowering is in spring and summer, from September to January.
According to the Red List of South African Plants, checked on 5/12/2016, the conservation status of Pelargonium tricolor is Least Concern (LC).
Distribution and habitat
This species is found in arid fynbos of the Langeberg, Swartberg and Outeniqua Mountains, near towns such as Riversdale, Van Wyksdorp, Barrydale and Oudtshoorn. It grows in open places in sandy soil or clay, in arid Fynbos, Renosterveld, Sandolienveld and Waboomveld.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Pelargonium, is derived from the Greek word pelargos, meaning ‘stork’, because the fruit resembles the shape of the beak of a stork. The specific epithet tricolor, is derived from Latin, meaning ‘three-coloured’ and refers to the three-coloured flowers.
The genus Pelargonium belongs to the Geraniaceae, a family of 11 genera and 800 species in the subtropical and tropical world. Other well-known genera include: Geranium, Monsonia and Sarcocaulon. Pelargonium occurs in S, E and NE Africa, Australia, New Zealand, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Madagascar and Asia. Southern Africa is the hotspot of Pelargonium species and in the entire region, 219 of the 270 species are found (81%).
This group of plants has been an attraction to collectors and travellers since the years of exploration around the coast of the African continent in the 1600 and 1700s. Plants were taken to Europe early in the 17th century where it became established in some of the gardens. Amongst the first species to end up in England was Pelargonium triste. The Dutch botanist Hermann, collected P. cucculatum on Table Mountain in 1672, and in 1690, this species was established at the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, London. In Leyden, the Netherlands, 10 species were already on record in 1687. The much cultivated and bred ‘ivy geranium’, P. peltatum, was introduced to Dutch horticulture in 1700.
The flowers are protrandous. This means pollen is shed before the stigma of the very same flower is receptive. This prevents self pollination.
Plants of the forms which have more open flowers can be observed closing ever so slightly at night, during the pollen-shedding phase.
Plants display the phenomenon of heliotropism or phototropism, where its flowers actively follow the sun and light respectively.
Variable hairiness of the leaf surface lends a grey-green colour to the leaves.
Pelargonium tricolor forms part of a group of four species in the section Campylia (Sweet) of the genus Pelargonium which have ‘warty areas’ at the bases of the posterior petals. Repeated observations revealed that these are in fact false nectaries, which are very efficient in attracting dipteran pollinators. A small fly, Megapulpis capensis Wiedemann (Diptera: Bombyliidae), revealed a strong association with these false nectaries. Furthermore, the presence of pollen on these flies, as well as the behaviour of the flies on the flowers, strongly suggests the involvement of M. capensis in the pollination of P. tricolor. In 1793, Curtis noted that the substance present in the warty, dark spots on the upper petals dissolves, and tinges the petals a red colour. This observation was also made in the wild.
The light seed has a feathered, tail-like structure which is coiled in a spiral arrangement. The tail enables the seed to twist around in the wind and drills itself into the soil. This action ensures more seed have a better chance of germination.
Records indicate that this pelargonium was cultivated in England as early as 1792.
The seemingly temperamental nature of this species, resulted in the hybridization with other pelargonium in an effort to enhance it and make it easier to grow. A hybrid cultivar, ‘Splendide’, which is an intermediate between P. tricolor and P. ovale, was named by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1958. In this hybrid the flowers reflect the P. tricolor parent, whereas the leaves are similar to the P. ovale parent.
No medicinal or cultural uses have been reported.
Growing Pelargonium tricolor
Sow seed in late summer or early autumn in a light, well-draining medium. Seed will germinate in 14–21 days. Prick out the seedlings and pot-up once they have produce 2 or more leaves.
New plants can also be produced through cuttings. This can be done throughout the year, but the best period is during active growth. Take a cutting of 7 cm and remove the leaves and stipules from its lower two-thirds. Make a cut below the node, insert in a powder rooting hormone and place in a tray of coarse river sand. The tray with cuttings can be placed in a cold frame or a sheltered spot. Keep the cuttings damp. Rooting takes 4–6 weeks, after which cuttings can be hardened-off for about 2 weeks. During this period, the rooted cuttings can be fed with liquid Kelpak which enable root development. Since the roots are very sensitive, care must be taken during the potting, to minimize any unnecessary form of root disturbance.
Use this species in a rockery, as pot plant, mixed plantings or border planting. The drainage needs to very good, a period of winter rain and very little water during the summer months. Plants in pots should not be allowed to become root-bound. Potting on into larger containers with fresh soil on regular basis is, therefore, advisable. Take care not to disturb the roots. P. tricolor plants performs well when planted in a planter or deep trough. Plants can be fed with 3:1:5 fertilizer once per year. This can be supplemented with liquid fertilizer feeding every 2–3 week during the active growing season.
The gesiggiemalva is a resprouter and flowers profusely after a fire. Cut back older plants for rejuvenation, or to improve its shape. This will also contribute to improved flowering.
Pelargonium tricolor is a relatively pest-free species.
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape Plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri.
- McDonald, D.J. & Powrie, F.J. 1992. Pelargonium tricolor. Veld & Flora. Sept. Vol. 78 (3). Creda Press, Cape Town.
- McDonald, D.J. & Van der Walt, J.J.A. 1992. Observations on the pollination of Pelargonium tricolor, section Campylia (Geraniaceae). South African Journal of Botany 58(5): 386–392.
- Oliver, R. 2014-12. Pelargonium album J.J.A v.d.Walt (Geraniaceae). PlantZAfrica. Internet 4 pp. http://pza.sanbi.org/pelargonium-album (2016-12-08).
- Stearn, W. 2002. Stearn's dictionary of plant names for gardeners. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
- Van der Walt, J J A. 1977. Pelargoniums of South Africa. Purnell, Cape Town.
- Vlok, J. & Schutte-Vlok, A.L. 2010. Plants of the Klein Karoo. Umdaus Press, Hatfield.lo
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Shrub
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Red, White, Pink, Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average