Once thought to be extinct, Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri, the crimson-flowered herbaceous daisy has found its way back into cultivation.
This plant is a herbaceous, perennial shrub with a rounded or spreading habit, 500-600 mm high. It has finely twice-divided glaucous grey-green leaves with soft herbaceous new shoots, sprouting from a semi-woody perennial stem. The plant is well branched and has fairly tight growth. Crimson red daisy flowers are born on terminal shoots all year round with a flowering peak in spring and summer. Seeds are about half the size of a grain of rice and attached to a small white papery parachute that carries them a long distance in the wind. The more common and widespread parent species U. chrysanthemoides, typically yellow or orange-flowered, has a similar habit, however, the leaves are greener and it tends to be a little more robust and long-lived under garden conditions.
Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri currently has no conservation status. However, for about 20 years it was thought to be extinct. As far as is known, the original type locality population has disappeared due to overgrazing of sheep and goats, and to date we know of only a single living wild population.
Distribution and habitat
Although the distribution of the very much more common yellow-flowered U. chrysanthemoides is fairly wide from Namaqualand to the Eastern Cape, the natural distribution of the red-flowered Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri is limited to a very small area on the east-facing foothills of the Swartruggens Mountains which form an ecotone or transition zone from the arid fynbos of the Kouebokkeveld Mountains to the very arid plains of the Tanqua Karoo. This plant grows naturally in deep, well-drained, sandstone-derived sandy soil in between loose sandstone rocks. The area receives very limited amounts of winter rainfall and is classed as semi-desert. During the dry summer months, the plants survive extreme temperatures of up to 50ºC and in winter it can drop to well below freezing.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Ursinia is fairly large with 38 species mainly in South Africa with mostly yellow or orange flowers. The specific name chrysanthemoides refers to its likeness to a Chrysanthemum flower. This unique red-flowered form was originally discovered in 1958 by a Dr Geyer and was described as a new species in his honour, Ursinia geyeri, by Louisa Bolus and Harry Hall in 1961 in the Journal of South African Botany. However, it was later reclassified as a variety of the more widespread yellow-flowered species U. chrysanthemoides by Prassler in 1967- U. chrysanthemoides var. geyeri.
Jeffrey (1970) suggested that var. geyeri might be considered as a cultivar rather than a variety and this is why the Plants of Southern Africa (POSA) database lists the name simply as U. chrysanthemoides. (POSA does not list cultivars). The author disagrees with Jeffrey as this is a wild form which differs in several respects from Ursinia chrysanthemoides in the strict sense and is not simply a horticultural cultivar. Thus the variety name is retained in this article.
Modern molecular work at Stellenbosch University, although not yet published, seems to indicate that the present understanding of Ursinia chrysanthemoides actually consists of a number of different taxa and will probably soon be split up accordingly, ' var. geyeri' being one of them.
In 1959 Dr Geyer supplied Kirstenbosch with a small amount of seed which germinated rather poorly. However, under the diligent hand and expert green fingers of the late Harry Hall, they flourished in a sunny aspect, were propagated and bulked up and were grown as annuals in the display beds. Although naturally a perennial, it was treated as an annual, as plants became exhausted after a long flowering season. This species was also grown extensively at the Karoo Botanical Gardens in Worcester for a numbers of years where it apparently behaved as a perennial-dying down to a rootstock during the hot summer months.
Jeffrey (1970) describes it growing at Kew as a tender perennial or half-hardy annual.
Despite these plants having grown so prolifically at both Kirstenbosch and the Karoo Botanic Gardens, for one reason or another, this magnificent plant eventually, without notice, fell completely out of cultivation during the late 1980s to early 1990s. Despite many attempts by many different people to relocate the plant in the wild, nobody could, and it was then thought for a number of years to be extinct. The author also had been to look for the plant on three separate occasions without success, but in the spring of 2007 together with David Gwynne-Evans and Paul Emms, on a stray mountain track some distance from the original type locality, at dusk, the plants were miraculously rediscovered! Copious quantities of seed were collected along with a large selection of tip cuttings from many different plants. These have been successfully re-established at Kirstenbosch and will, for the first time in probably 40 years, be on display during spring this year in the mesembs banks section at Kirstenbosch.
Uses and cultural aspects
Apart from its horticultural value this plant has no other recorded uses.
Growing Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri
Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri is a versatile herbaceous plant that can be grown as a perennial but will do best in its first year of growth and hence is often treated as an annual. It forms mounds of blood red/crimson flowers all year round but especially in spring and summer. It can be grown as a pot plant or as a bedding plant in an annual herbaceous border. It has two requirements for good growth: good drainage and a lot of sun. Remember this is essentially a desert plant. If the soil is too stodgy and wet it may cause the roots to rot. If it does not get enough direct sun, excess moisture on the leaves may cause fungal infections and the plant may rot-we have experienced this at Kirstenbosch. This plant is amazingly versatile in that it can grow in both a very hot and dry garden provided it gets well established during the cool winter months, or in a lush, moist garden. It is also hardy and can withstand temperatures of up to -5ºC.
This plant is surprisingly easy to propagate especially from cuttings. Older, low branches nearer the ground often have exposed ready-formed aerial rootlets appearing at the nodes. If propagating from these shoots, they can be ground-layered into the soil or removed and planted directly into the soil in the ground or in a pot and should sprout fairly easily, especially in the cooler winter months. If propagating from newer, softer shoots, they can be rooted in a glass of water providing the submerged part of the stems have been removed of leaves and the water is changed on a daily basis. Rooting hormone is not necessary but will speed up the rooting process. It should be noted that a single clone planted in isolation will not produce any seed. It will need to be grown alongside a number of other genetically different plants to produce viable seed.
Propagation from seed should take place in autumn and seems to be most successful when the seeds have been treated with smoke beforehand. This amazing germination trigger we have found has a marked effect on the germination of all manner of plants-even those that would never naturally encounter fires, such as this one. This can be done using the Kirstenbosch smoke disks available at the Kirstenbosch seedroom. Soak the seeds in a smoke solution for 24 hours and sow either directly into the ground (preferable) or in a seed tray of well-drained, sandy soil. Cover the seeds with about 5 mm of pure river sand. Although not tested, stratifying the seeds in the fridge for a couple of weeks should also stimulate uniform germination. Germination will normally happen within 2-3 weeks. If in a tray, carefully prick out the seedlings only after they have produced their second set of true leaves. Plant directly into a pot or in the ground. Plants will respond dramatically to modest doses of organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion or pelleted chicken manure. Kelp-derived growth stimulants also help with plant health and vigour.
This plant seems not to attract many pests. Snails are always a problem, however. The main cause of premature death is rotting caused by excessively wet leaves or soil.
If you are planning to maintain the plant as a perennial, regular pruning is required. Prune back the plants by ¼ at the very end of spring as summer temperatures start to rise (even if the plants are still in flower!). This pruning will relieve the water burden on the root system and promote a second flush of growth that will be better adapted to the hot summer conditions. Take care not to prune too hard-if cut back to bare stems the plants may not resprout at all! If not under irrigation and the summer conditions are dry, the plants will hopefully recede to a semi-dormant state and remain like this until it rains again in autumn. A light pruning again at the end of summer just as the temperatures start to drop will again reduce the leaf mass and re-invigorate the plant to sprout again for the winter months. Very little watering is required in winter, unless conditions are dry. If one plans to actively grow the plant in summer, dripper irrigation is recommended as this will keep the leaves dry and infection free.
Plants are slow to get going in their first 2 to 3 months from seed or cuttings but build up pace quickly and grow very vigorously especially during summer. In the wild, plants will probably last about 3 years but in cultivation no more than 2 years can be expected, unless well cared for.
References and further reading
- Bolus, H.M.L. & Hall, H. 1961. A new species of Ursinia. Journal of South African Botany 27: 253, 254.
- Hall, H. 1967. Ursinia geyeri- with some notes on its cultivation at Kirstenbosch. Journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa 53: 27, 28.
- Hall, H. 1969-1970. Ursinia chrysanthemoides var. geyeri. The Flowering Plants of Africa 40: t. 1575.
- Harrower, A.D. 2007. The happy tale of the re-discovery of the elusive coral Ursinia. Veld & Flora 93: 213-215.
- Harrower, A.D. & Shanks, G.R. 2007. Lost in cultivation. Veld & Flora 93: 140, 141.
- Jeffrey, C. 1970. Ursinia chrysanthemoides cv. ' geyeri'. Curtis's Botanical Magazine 177: t. 564.
- Lawder, M. 1966. Exciting new Ursinia. New Zealand Gardener, June: 499.
- Prassler, M. 1967. Revision der Gattung Ursinia. Mitteilungen der Botanischen Staatssammlung München 6: 363-478.
- Van der Spuy, U. 1976. Wild flowers of South Africa for the garden : 134, 135.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
28 July 2008
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