Pelargonium trifidum

Family : Geraniaceae
Common names : Brittle-stalked pelargonium (Eng.); maklikbreekmalva (Afr.) )


This is a large attractive pelargonium with cream to white flowers with maroon markings.

Pelargonium trifidum is an aromatic sprawling shrublet with several scrambling branches. It may reach a height of 1 m when it is supported by other plants. The stems are brittle, slim and covered with soft hairs. The succulent leaves are variable in form and hairiness. They are deeply lobed with toothed margins and are 40 mm in diameter. At the start of a drought the leaves usually fall off.

Stems and leaves

The flowers are large, 30 mm in diameter, cream-coloured to white with reddish stripes on the upper two petals. The shrub flowers from September to January.

Conservation status
Pelargonium trifidum is listed on the National Red List of South African plants as Least Concern (assessed February 2009, ).
Pelargonium trifidum occurs both in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces. It ranges from Worcester eastwards to the area of Peddie in the Eastern Cape. The habitat it is associated with is hot and dry. Its grows among karroid bushes and shrubs and is often found on rocky slopes in clayey soils in Spekboomveld, Gwarrieveld and Apronveld.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
William Henry Harvey, an Irish botanist divided the pelargoniums into 15 sections. The diagnostic features for the different divisions were based on leaf, flower characteristics and habitat. Pelargonium trifidum is classified under the section Ligularia . This section comprises species that have branched or much branched subsucculent stems which are woody at the base. The leaves are rarely entire, being pinnately divided. The petals are subequal and spathulate with a tapering base.

Pelargonium trifidum belongs in the family Geraniaceae, a large family of 11 genera and 800 species in subtropical and temperate regions of the world. The South African genera in the Geraniaceae family are Monsonia, Sarcocaulon, Pelargonium, Erodium and Geranium. There are approximately 270 species of Pelargonium which occur in S, E and NE Africa, Asia, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand, most of which (± 270 species) occur in southern Africa and ± 150 species are found in fynbos. Pelargoniums are often wrongly called geraniums. Pelargonium gets its name from the resemblance of the shape of the fruit to the beak of a stork, which is pelargos in Greek. The epithet trifidum, refers to the three-fingered shape of the leaves.

The nomenclature of this species is confusing and with both P. fragile and P. tripartitum being names for the plant in the past. Koos Roux of the Compton herbarium ( pers comm.) explains it thus:

Starting at the earliest date; Burm.f. in 1759 published Geranium trifidum.  In 1797 Jacquin published Pelargonium trifidum. These taxa I assume were based on different types and must therefore be treated as different taxa altogether. In 1800 Willdenow transferred Burman's Geranium to Pelargonium  - thus Pelargonium trifidum (Burm.f.) Willd. This combination in Pelargonium is predated by Jacquin's Pelargonium trifidum (1797). Andrews described Geranium fragile in 1798 and therefore postdated Geranium trifidum Burm.f. (1759) and Pelargonium trifidum Jacq. (1797) and therefore has no standing. The correct name is Pelargonium trifidum Jacq..

It was also known as Pelargonium tripartitum because Knuth (1912) disregarded the earliest specific epithet fragile of Andrews (1798).

The brittle-stalked pelargonium was introduced into England in 1792 by prominent nurserymen James Lee and Lewis Kennedy.

Pelargonium trifidum is pollinated by long-tongue flies. Pelargonium seed is interesting in that, attached to the elliptic seed, is a feathered, tail-like structure that is coiled in a spiral arrangement. This tail causes the seed to twist around in the wind and to drill itself into the soil in a corkscrew fashion, thus ensuring that most seeds produced (5 seeds per flower) have a good chance of germinating , (Brown, N. & Duncan, G. 2006).

Uses and cultural aspects
Although Pelargonium trifidum has no cultural use, horticulturally it is an attractive species. Pelargonium trifidum should be planted in an area that is well drained and receives full sun. Perfect growing conditions will allow it to grow to 1 m, therefore the shrublet should be planted in front of other taller growing shrubs, but behind low-growing plants. The flowers are large and will be a beautiful attraction in the garden.

Plant in flower

Growing Pelargonium trifidum

Pelargonium trifidum can be propagated from seeds and cuttings. Sow seeds in late summer to early autumn. For optimum germination, seed is best sown when fresh even though it may remain viable for up to 7 years , (Brown, N. & Duncan, G. 2006). The seed should be sown in a light, well-drained potting mix. Sprinkle the seeds evenly in the seed tray and cover them with fine-milled pine bark. Water the seeds gently but thoroughly with a fine-nozzled watering can and place them in light shade with no direct sun. Seed germinates in 23 weeks. Plants grown from seeds will flower within 12 to 18 months.

Cuttings can be propagated any time of the year from healthy plants. Select softwood or herbaceous plant material to use as cuttings. A rooting powder will speed up the rooting process. Place the cuttings in coarse river sand in cold frames or a lightly shaded area and keep them moist. The cuttings should root within 3 weeks. Give the rooted cuttings a 2-week weaning period and transplant them into a well-drained potting soil mix and place them in a sunny position. They can be planted in the garden once the plants have formed a strong root-ball. Pelargoniums are prone to diseases and attacks from insects. Pests such as aphids, white fly or rust and powdery mildew can be problematic. Consult the nearest garden centre to find out what the latest and best suited pesticides and fungicides are for the problems.

References and further reading

  • Brown, N. & Duncan, G. 2006. Grow Fynbos plants. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
  • Van der Walt, J.J. 1977. Pelargoniums of southern Africa . Purnell, Cape Town.
  • Vlok, J. & Schutte-Vlok, A.L. 2010. Plants of the Klein Karoo. Umdaus Press, South Africa.
  • website: National Red List of South African plants (accessed February 2009).
  • website:


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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

May 2013







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