Treasures of the steppe: hardy Pelargonium endlicherianum


People harbor strange notions. Mention flowers and gardening and they think "England" or "Seattle," as if you have to live by the seaside to garden! Well, I have news for you, Bud! The dry, sagebrush badlands of Wyoming or Nevada have infinitely more variety of flowers than any patch of woodland in England or around Seattle. The steppe trumps "Drizzlyland" when it comes to floristic diversity any old day. Pelargonium is a case in point. They may grow these African geraniums to perfection at Swiss chalets or in British window boxes, but the genus is mostly confined to dry, rocky areas in South Africa...with a few notable exceptions. I blogged several years ago about the "other" hardy pelargonium, Pelargonium quercetorum. That giant species is very rare in nature, confined to a few gorges in mythical Kurdistan (which is a country that should encompass portions of Turkey, Iran and Iraq).

Much wider spread across much of central Turkey, Pelargonium endlicherianum has been on the fringes of cultivation for decades. It is a quintessential steppe plant, however, needing hot summers, dry winters and good drainage to thrive. In Colorado it does best in a rock garden where it gets a bit of extra water in summertime. This picture was taken at Laporte Avenue Nursery in Fort Collins, which along with Sunscapes Nursery in Pueblo, are the only two nurseries I know of where this is regularly propagated and sold.

 Many of the South African "pelllies" have rounded flowers that approach the closely related genus Geranium in their outline. The true geraniums (which are generally more blue-flowered and mostly quite hardy) have truly radially symmetrical flowers (termed "rotate" by botanists). The pellies, however, have only zygomorphic flowers (i.e., bilaterally symmetrical flowers), perfectly exemplified by this Turkish treasure's butterfly blossoms. If you check your Swiss flowerbox-type pellies closely you will see that although their flowers look circular and radially symmetrical, they are actually not so. There are many other features that segregate these two genera, the most blatant of which is how their seed is dispersed. Pelargonium produces feathery tails on the seed while Geranium has small round pellets that are catapulted from the seedhead like bullets.

This enchanting "pelly" is found several spots around the Rock Alpine Garden where it has been growing for several decades. Laporte credits us with providing them with their original stock, which suggests that Denver Botanic Gardens is likely the source of most plants of this in cultivation! We have obtained seed on several occasions beginning in the mid 1980s from a number of Czech seed collectors, including Josef Jurasek and Zdenek Zvolanek. 

This is but one (and a spectacular one at that) example of the gorgeous, long blooming treasures of the steppe showcased at Denver Botanic Gardens. I know it has been grown for a while at a few European botanic gardens in Britain and Germany (in pots I suspect), but I'll bet we are the only public garden (and there are many hundreds) in North America that has this in their collections! Prove me wrong!

At the Gardens

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