The Cape Primrose

Posted by on November 4, 2014

Seeing all the Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose) pot plants recently for sale in a local florist, made me wonder how many people know that a parent of this delightful hybrid, with its numerous dainty flowers, was first discovered in the Knysna area.

Streptocarpus Photo: Margaret Richards

Streptocarpus
Photo: Margaret Richards

James Bowie, a young plant collector and botanist, was sent out to the Cape from the Royal Gardens at Kew to collect new and interesting plants in 1818. While staying with the ever hospitable George Rex and his family at Melkhoutkraal, Bowie came across a delicate little blue to pale violet flower with thick velvety leaves, that he had not seen before, growing alongside a shady forest stream. He sent a specimen back to Kew, where it flowered in 1823 and was eventually named Streptocarpus rexii.

The origin of the name is Greek and refers to the spirally twisted fruit capsules (streptos meaning twisted and carpus meaning fruit; rexii of course refers to George Rex). It belongs to the same family as the African violet and has become equally popular as a pot plant, particularly in the northern hemisphere. As more species were discovered, different hybrids were created, resulting in a wide range of colours and larger flowers. Dibleys Nurseries in Wales, in particular, has specialised in growing these plants and Dibleys ‘Harlequin Blue’ was voted Chelsea Plant of the Decade for 2003-2012. Dibleys’ website (www.dibleys.com) contains a wealth of information about these plants, including tips about growing, propagating etc.

Streptocarpus Photo: Margaret Richards

Streptocarpus
Photo: Margaret Richards

The most important piece of growing advice is – do not overwater! Overwatering harms the root system of the plant. The leaves wilt when they are too dry and too wet. So always feel the potting medium before watering. Make sure that the plant is not in direct sunlight, is adequately ventilated and always cut off dead flowers. When treated correctly these pot plants will flower happily all summer.

In South Africa there are about 51 different Streptocarpus species in the wild, many growing in small populations in very specific areas. They are therefore very vulnerable to disturbance and some species are now under threat, e.g. Streptocarpus formosus (white with soft mauve markings) first found in the Port St Johns area and S. kentaniensis (mauve tube with white petals) found near the Kei River mouth. You can see many of these beautiful little forest plants growing in the Kirstenbosch Gardens along the Camphor Avenue and at The Dell.

James Bowie, who found the first Streptocarpus in Knysna, lost his job at Kew because of budget cuts and so-called ‘lack of application’, and after struggling to make a living in England returned to the Cape in 1827. He worked as a private plant collector, as well as for two 19th century botanical garden pioneers in Cape Town – Baron CFH von Ludwig, who created the Ludwig’sburg Garden in Kloof Street and Ralph Arderne, creator of a beautiful garden at his home ‘The Hill’ in Claremont, which still exists today as the Arderne Gardens.

If you haven’t yet fallen under the spell of these lovely little forest Cape primroses – do not delay. They are so rewarding and admired by all.

Streptocarpus Photo: Margaret Richards

Streptocarpus
Photo: Margaret Richards

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