The following is an article, slightly modified and with additional images, taken from the author's website,
www.blakulla.eu © 2010, Annette Andersson
FORMOSUM HYBRIDS (Part 1)
BY ANNETTE ANDERSSON
'Els' Typical formosum leaf 'Janet' 'Something Else' 'Urchin' 'Urchin' leaves
The American breeder, Milton Arndt, drew attention to a peculiar geranium in flower boxes at a hotel he visited in Mexico
during the 1950s. When he made inquiries about it, staff at the hotel said that the plant had been left there by sailors from
Japan. These sailors told the staff that they took the plant from the island of Formosa, i.e. contemporary Taiwan. Milton
Arndt took cuttings back to the United States and several gardeners began searching for its origin. They could not find any
information either on the island of Formosa, or elsewhere in the Orient. Even the great gardens of Europe and South Africa
were queried but none knew anything about it.
Since they had no name on the plant, it became known as ‘Formosum’. The American breeder, Holmes Miller, called it
“fingered flower” because it had hand-like leaves. From that came the Swedish name fingerpelargon (finger Pelargonium).
It should be mentioned that some stellar pelargoniums have been called “fingered flower” since the early 1960s over confusion
between the Australian stellar pelargoniums and the more recently discovered ‘Formosum’. Relatively soon it was realized,
however, that there were two separate but possibly related varieties.
In Sweden, it is generally believed that ‘Els’ is synonymous with ‘Formosum’ (Christa Holm, 1997). Abroad, they are sold as two
different varieties, which made me start to wonder where ‘Els’ came from and how it got its name. I contacted several Swedish
geranium experts but no one could answer my questions. I understood that international help was needed to solve this problem.
I asked Helena Ericson Wik, who contacted the American geranium expert, Faye Brawner, for this case. She confirmed that
‘Formosum’ is the name of the original plant. It has salmon-pink petals with white tips. Faye says that ‘Els’ is a hybrid of ‘Formosum’
and like its parent except that it does not have the white tipped petals. It is just salmon. Faye saw it for the first time during one of her
many trips to England. She was told that it came from Holland. After some research, I found a village in Holland called Els, which
made me think that Faye’s information could be true. I contacted Esther van der Velde at Kwekerij C. Spek, a nursery in Holland.
Esther confirmed that ‘Els’ is from Holland from a breeder named Vincent Gerris. This can be read in a Dutch Pelargonium
book called Alles over Geranium (Pelargonium) by Rita Scheen-Prince from 1982. This means that ‘Formosum’ and ‘Els’ are two
different varieties that might have been confused in Sweden. Collectors should be aware of these kinds of problems. If you have a
‘Formosum’ plant, which has white tips on the petals, it likely bears the correct name.
Faye Brawner writes in her book, Geraniums: The Complete Encyclopedia, that many crosses between ‘Formosum’ and other
zonals have been made but few can be found for they never reached the nurseries. It is easier to produce a cross between a
‘Formosum’ hybrid and a zonal than between a ‘Formosum’ hybrid and a stellar and this depends on the genes. Both stellars and
formosum hybrids have recessive genes but the formosum hybrids have more recessive genes. A recessive gene is a gene that
must be inherited from both parents to be seen in the offspring. Otherwise it is hidden until there are no dominant genes in the cross
and then they make their appearance.
There have also been three-way crosses made when one first crosses a formosum hybrid with a stellar and this offspring is then
crossed with a zonal. Frances Hartsook did many of these three- way crosses. There are several examples of formosum hybrids
not showing the typical leaf or flower form. Annie Popham, inter alia, has launched ‘Beth Parmer’ and ‘Marriam Parmer’ as formosum
hybrids. They are nice geraniums, but do not have the characteristics that we associate with finger geraniums. Some people believe
that the stellar ‘Chinese Cactus’ crossed with a zonal produced the cultivar ‘Formosum’. This is wrong.
There are few miniature and dwarf fingered flower geraniums that have the same good properties as regular zonals. Mr. Miller was
a breeder who produced fine formosum hybrids. ‘Urchin’ and ‘Playmate’ are two very similar plants, and it’s basically just the
flower color, which distinguishes them. ‘Urchin’ flowers more freely. There is a charming story about ‘Urchin’. Holmes Miller’s wife,
Dorothea, looked at the big ‘Formosum’ one day and commented on it. She said it would be nice if he could get such a plant but a
dwarf with red flowers. Holmes Miller began working directly to fulfill her wishes. It was a long process as that involved a variety of
crosses and back crosses but he managed to eventually obtain the desired plant.
The original stellar ‘Chinese Cactus’ has leaves with shallow, sharp indentations and a medium leaf zone. It is salmon-pink in color.
The two upper petals are narrow and the lower three are sharply tapered and have some notching along the edge. It has a primitive
appearance and it is tall and robust. ‘Formosum’ has three major leaf divisions that are cut down to the base. Each lobe is in turn
deeply cut and looks a bit like a fern. Instead of the stellar’s five primitive petals ‘Formosum’ has a round flower of about 15 petals
arranged in an even-rayed form, the same as in an aster or daisy. It is also quite tall but not as woody as the stellars.
To find out more about finger geraniums I made contact with the breeder, Charles Heidgen, in the United States. From his nursery
several fingered flower pelargoniums have found their way out into the world’s Pelargonium collection. The following section present
selected parts of an e-mail from Charles Heidgen, owner of Shady Hill Gardens, Illinois.
“At one time it was believed that the stellar and fingered flower types of geraniums were a distinct species, Pelargonium
formosum. Through controlled experiments, it has been determined that P. formosum is not a distinct species,
but rather a zonal geranium, P. X hortorum, with a different leaf and flower form caused by a single gene mutation.
This mutated gene produces two forms, stellars, with the star shaped leaves and flowers, and fingered flowers, with
the deeply cut leaves, and the usually very narrow flower petals. Both types are striking in appearance, but the stellars
will usually give better overall garden performance.”
“ ‘Star Witch’ was bred in the late 1980s, when we were doing a lot more geranium breeding than at the present time.
Many crosses were made using those stellar varieties that were good pollen producers crossed into a number of different
named zonal varieties, and then successive back crosses to recover the recessive gene. Some others that were
named at that time were: ‘Little Witch’, ‘Snow Witch’, and ‘St. Emo’s Fire’. All of these were the ‘fingered flowers’
type of stellars.”
“Let me explain a little more about stellar geraniums. There are not truly geraniums, but are most accurately called
Pelargoniums. For conversational purposes I choose to call them what most people do, namely geraniums. Most of
the stellars are a little less fertile than other zonal geraniums. Many do not produce a lot of pollen, and frequently
they will not set seed. Some are actually sterile, but in most cases it is just reduced fertility, sometimes it is seasonal.
This is part of the reason that most stellars are single flowered, as the stamens and anthers “go petalate”, resulting in
more petals but extremely reduced fertility.”
(N.B. The quest for information about formosum hybrids or so-called finger Pelargonium has not been easy. There is not much
information available about them. I picked up most of the information about this group of pelargoniums from Faye Brawner’s book,
Geraniums: The Complete Encyclopedia, and also older parts of the International Geranium Society journal Geraniums Around
the World and a lot of e-mails around the world. In addition, I have been in contact with the breeder, Charles Heidgen, in the U.S.
who straightened out a number of questions surrounding this group of varieties. This is what I came up with about this group of
varieties whose origin is still subject to several unresolved issues.) (To be continued in the October Newsletter.)