Pelargonium papilionaceum
(L.) L'Hér.

Family : Geraniaceae
Common names: butterfly pelargonium (Eng.); rambossie (Afr.)

Pelargonium papilionaceum shrub

A Pelargonium worthwhile growing in shady places in your garden.

Pelargonium papilionaceum is an erect strongly or unpleasantly scented shrub, reaching a height of 2 m. The base of the main stem is woody whereas the side branches are herbaceous and covered with long soft hairs. The cordate (heart-shaped) leaves are usually about 70 mm long and 100 mm wide. The leaf margins are finely toothed, minutely serrated (saw-toothed) or almost entire. The branched peduncles form many umbel-like heads with 5–12 flowers each. The striking light pink to carmine flowers with two large upper reflexed petals and three very narrow lower ones, are borne on long and villous pedicels. A dark purple blotch on the upper petals contrasts well with an adjacent white blotch. The fruit, a so-called schizocarp, splits into 5 separate parts or mericarps, with the basal part about 6 mm long and a tail of about 35 mm long. Pelargonium papilionaceum flowers from August to January.

Pelargonium papilionaceum flowers Pelargonium papilionaceum leaves
Pelargonium papilionaceum flowers
Pelargonium papilionaceum leaves

Conservation status
Pelargonium papilionaceum is listed on the Red List of South African plants (Raimondo et al. 2009) as Least Concern. A taxon is considered to be Least Concern when it has been evaluated against the five IUCN criteria and does not qualify for the categories Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Near Threatened.

Distribution and habitat
Pelargonium papilionaceum is restricted to the southwestern and southern parts of the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. It occurs from the Stellenbosch District to the Klein River mountains and on to Grahamstown. It grows on the fringe of indigenous forests and in kloofs in half-shady places usually close to streams.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Pelargonium papilionaceum belongs in the family Geraniaceae, a large cosmopolitan family of approximately 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, but mostly (± 219 species) in southern Africa. Pelargoniums are often wrongly called geraniums. Pelargonium gets its name from the resemblance of the fruit to the beak of a stork, which is pelargos in Greek. The Latin species epithet papilionaceus, butterfly-like, refers to the flower with two large upper petals, resembling a butterfly. The Afrikaans common name “rambossie” refers to the unpleasant smell of the leaves which some describe as similar to the scent of a he-goat. The butterfly pelargonium has been in cultivation in Britain since 1724.

The seeds are adapted to wind dispersal. Once they reach the ground they bore their way into the soil. This is possible due to the corkscrew tail attached to the end of the seed. As the wind blows, so the corkscrew turns, much like a drill bit.

Uses and cultural aspects
It has been reported that the leaves of Pelargonium papilionaceum were used as a tobacco substitute, and it is possible that they were smoked for medicinal purposes. Horticulturally, pelargoniums are a versatile group of plants that can be rewarding in any garden. When gardening with the butterfly pelargonium one should bear in mind that it is best grown in a shady area of the garden. It grows to a fairly tall height, so make sure that you plant it in the background of your shady garden. It will also make an interesting addition to a scented garden although some consider its scent to be unpleasant.

Pelargonium papilionaceum shrub

Growing Pelargonium papilionaceum

Pelargonium papilionaceum can be propagated from seed and cuttings. Stem cuttings, selected from softwood, can be taken at any time of the year from a healthy strong plant. This is the most commonly used method of propagating pelargoniums. Plants grown by this method will flower within 3 to 6 months. A rooting hormone will accelerate the rooting process, especially in softwood cuttings. Place the cuttings in a propagation tray containing separate compartments or plugs with river sand and place in cold frames or well lit area and keep them moist. The cuttings should root in 3 weeks. Give the rooted cuttings a 3-week weaning period and transplant them into a well-drained potting soil mix and place them in a shady position. Please remember that they are shade-loving plants, so avoid direct sunlight after potting. When they have formed a strong root-ball they can be planted into a shady area in your garden.

Sow seeds in late summer to early autumn. The seed should be sown in a light, well-drained soil mix. Sprinkle the seeds evenly in the seed tray and cover them with fine white silica sand or fine-milled pine bark. The seeds should be watered gently but thoroughly with a fine soft nozzle spray or watering can. Place the sown seed in light shade with no direct sun. Seed germinates in 2–3 weeks. Plants grown from seeds will flower within 12 to 18 months. Pelargoniums grow happily and free of diseases outdoors, but if the same plant is grown indoors or in a greenhouse the warmer climatic conditions and lack of air circulation usually result in infestations by pests such as aphids, white fly and mealy bug. They are also more susceptible to fungal diseases such as rust and powdery mildew. Please contact your local garden centre and ask for the appropriate pesticide and fungicide to treat these problems.

References and further reading

  • Bean, A. Johns, A., 2005. Stellenbosch to Hermanus. South African Wild Flower Guide 5. Botanical Society of South Africa. Cape Town.
  • Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
  • Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. & Manyama, P.A. (eds) 2009. Red List of South African plants. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
  • Van der Walt, J.J. & Vorster, P.J. 1977. Pelargoniums of southern Africa 1. Purnell, Cape Town.


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Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
December 2010







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