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Striking Streptocarpus

By Audrey Stallsmith

streptocarpus Rexii

Mrs. Durrant is doubtless quite correct from the European point of view in calling the streptocarpus the cape primrose. . .but. . .what we call the cape primrose here is the oenothera. . .Where this flower grows its relation to children is the same as that of the primrose in England. The streptocarpus grows in shady ravines and rocky nooks where only very adventurous children ever see it.

"Cape Flowers at Home," The Selborne Magazine, 1903

If I were Mrs. Durrant, I probably would have responded to the somewhat snippy comment above by saying that Europeans and Americans call oenothera the evening primrose.  I would have added that children tend to value most that which they have to be adventurous to find.

And streptocarpus is certainly worth the hunt!  Fortunately, over here, the plant is more likely to be discovered on window sills than in shady ravines.

My first streptocarpus was an unexpected gift--in more ways than one.  Presented to me years ago by people from whom I would never have anticipated a present, the plant completely charmed me with its "quilted tongue" leaves and elaborately veined flowers.

Granted, streptocarpus sounds like a disease you wouldn't want to catch, but actually refers to the cunningly shaped seed pod.  In Greek streptos means "twisted" and carpus "fruit."  In the Victorian Annals of Horticulture, that pod is described as "twisted in a curious spiral manner, and the simplest way in fact of removing the seeds from their natural envelope is to untwist this, when they readily fall out."

Those seeds are as fine as sand, so I usually do my untwisting over a sheet of white paper, so the seeds are easy to see.  I then crease the sheet and tap those seeds into a folded "packet" of wax paper, as they will cling to plastic.

Most streptocarpuses originated in Africa or Madagascar. So, as mentioned above, they are also known as cape primrose--after the Cape of Good Hope and the resemblance of the wrinkled leaves to those of primulas.  As they grow on forest floors or shady banks in their native habitat, cape primroses also resemble the real type in that they don't like heat or too much direct sun. 

The first streptocarpus brought to England's Kew Gardens bloomed in 1826.  Found by the royal plant collector Mr. Bowie on an estate in South Africa, it was originally called didymocarpus Rexii after the estate's owner, George Rex.

Didymocarpus means "twinfruit."  Shirley Smithies, curator of Gesneriaceae at the National Herbarium in South Africa, suggests that original name derived from the fact that "many of the wild species carry only two flowers, and later two fruits, on each peduncle."  A couple years later the plant was renamed streptocarpus Rexii by English botanist John Lindley.

Another type, polyantha ("many flowers"), arrived accidentally thirty years later in the soil surrounding the trunks of some tree ferns.  Many others followed, and were crossed to produce the houseplant hybrids with which we are familiar today.

Streptocarpuses have since become some of the most loved members of the gesneriad family.  Although once used by Zulu witch doctors to reduce birth pains, the plants are most popular these days for their striking and dependable blooms 

Like the African violets to which they are related, streptocarpuses produce quite a number of flowers over the course of a year.  Mine usually don't produce a large amount all at once, though that may be because they are older plants.  New seedlings are supposed to flower much more heavily. 

Another way they resemble African violets is that they grow quite well under fluorescent lights.  But, unlike saintpaulias, they would rather live in the cool basement than the warm living room.

Some species types of streptocarpus produce one very large leaf and die after flowering.  But, fortunately for me, the modern hybrids survive for years. 

To introduce some "young blood," however, I did start some streptocarpus seedlings in February.  Those are just beginning to bloom now--about 9 months later. 

The seedlings can be a pain at first,  since they are so tiny when they germinate.  If I don't get to the seed pods soon enough, however, mine are happy to plant themselves in nearby pots.  A fact which I don't mind at all, since you can never have too many streptocarpuses!

Streptocarpus Rexii image is by Pierre-Joseph Redoute.