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Pelargonium tongaense

Pure Delight

The Tonga Pelargonium

Pelargonium tongaense – the Tonga pelargonium – is truly one of my favourite plants for a garden. It is extraordinarily useful in that it is the only pelargonium I know that thrives here in the mist belt of KwaZulu-Natal, growing and flowering prolifically in the semi shade. This little plant grows to a height of 30 cm and bears brick red flowers right through summer. It dies back slightly in winter and water should be withheld during this time. Originating as it does from the sand forests of Tongaland in northern KwaZulu-Natal, it loves a loose, well drained soil.
The story of the Tonga pelargonium’s arrival in gardens is no less delightful. Some years ago the late Dr Ian Garland introduced this valuable little plant into cultivation after one of his employees, Mr Jobe Mafuleka, brought him a specimen from his village. After his visits home Mr Mafuleka often returned with interesting plants and Dr Garland would wait with bated breath for these new treasures.

Dr Garland established the country’s first environmental centre in Mtunzini and taught children about nature and the environment in the 1950s. He was a man way ahead of his time. A sugar cane farmer who initially began clearing forested areas to plant more cane, he soon decided it was a disastrous idea and began instead to plant indigenous trees into degraded water ways. He persuaded other farmers to do the same and was responsible for the planting of an estimated 80 000 indigenous trees on
his farm alone. Today the original farm houses the Twinstreams Environmental Centre run by WESSA. Each time I see a charming little Tonga pelargonium plant I remember Ian and the precious times we spent talking all things indigenous over a cup of tea.
This special pelargonium is found only in one small area in north eastern KwaZulu-Natal, where it grows under bushy trees in fairly dense shade on loose, light reddish sand. The area is hot and humid in summer and winters are warm and dry. It is most unusual for a pelargonium to grow in these conditions and I treasure it.

Garden uses

Use Pelargonium tongaense to line pathways or the front of a bed. It looks wonderful combined with Plectranthus zuluensis (with its heavenly blue flowers) and with Psychotria capensis in the background. It thrives in morning sun with some afternoon shade and even grows in full sun, although in such positions it likes to have a cool root run (no baking in hot exposed positions for this little charmer). It looks perfectly wonderful in woodland plantings, teamed with Crocosmia aurea (falling stars) and Chlorophytum saundersiae (previously called Anthericum saundersiae); Bulbine natalensis makes an excellent companion too.
Unfortunately gardeners in frosty areas won’t be able to grow this little treasure, but other gardeners should certainly give it a try.
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