THE OTHER ZONAL PELARGONIUMS – 12. STELLAR PELARGONIUMS
By Wayne Handlos, Ph.D.
1. P. staphysagroides #98 from Sweet 2.‘Chinese Cactus’ flower & leaf 3. ‘Super Nova’ 4. ’Vectis Glitter’
5. ‘Graffiti Salmon Rose' flower & leaf 6. ‘Arctic Star’ 7.‘Fandango’ flower & leaf
8. ‘Marie Leonor’ flower & leaf 9. Unnamed cv 1131 flower and leaf 10. Unnamed cv 1136 flower and leaf
11. Unnamed cv 511/604 flower & leaf 12. ‘Jericho’ 13. ‘Lotus Land’
In the 1960’s, stellar Pelargoniums were considered "mystery plants." They were new to the Pelargonium world
and their origin was somewhat nebulous (but mysterious, really?).
About 1950 a plant was found growing in cultivation in Australia. The plant had unusual flowers – each petal was
sharply toothed. The leaves were also deeply and sharply lobed – like a half star or sunburst. While wild speculations
have been put forward about the origin of this unique leaf and floral characteristic, modern genetics would recognize
this as a mutation in the gene (or genes) controlling leaf and petal shape. As geneticists (biologists/gardeners) have
been aware for many decades now, mutations are always occurring. Most are insignificant and obscure but occasion
ally mutations occur which affect easily observable feature of a plant (or animal) – like the shape of a leaf or petal, color
and size of leaves and flowers, etc. So apparently a mutation occurred in a zonal Pelargonium in Australia and the
aberrant plant was kept alive and growing by gardeners until it was noticed and taken into the commercial trade and
distributed under the names ‘Chinese Cactus’ or ‘Fiery Chief’ or ‘Sunstar’. Investigations did not find this plant growing
anywhere else – so it was clearly a unique individual plant, unknown to science at that time.
Enter Ted Both. He was an Australian nurseryman/geranium lover, who set about crossing this unusual form of Pelargonium
with various cultivars of zonal geraniums. He was quite successful with his crosses and developed a number of commercially
viable cultivars with different flower colors, double and single flowers and different leaf colors before his untimely death.
Several of his hybrids were named by others after his passing.
In trying to identify ‘Chinese Cactus,’ Both found a comparison with a plant illustrated and named by Robert Sweet as
Pelargonium staphysagroides in his fifth volume of Geraniaceae in 1830. He therefore named this new group of cultivars
as "staphs". (Of course, if you Google "staph" today you will get a lot of information about infectious organisms and conditions.)
While there is some similarity between the petals of ‘Chinese Cactus’ andP. staphysagroides, the leaves bear some
resemblance but the inflorescence does not have the long-stalked umbellate inflorescence typical of zonal geraniums
and the coloration of the petals of P. staphysagroides is the purple and lilac commonly found in the regal, unique and
scented Pelargoniums but never found among the Ciconium (zonal) section of Pelargonium. Remember that species
in the section of scented/regal geraniums do not hybridize with the zonals and their close relatives. Both’s staphs (pre-
ferably called stellars) were derived from crosses between ’Chinese Cactus’ and various cultivars of zonals thereby
confirming that ‘Chinese Cactus’ was a unique and aberrant form of a zonal geranium.
When it became apparent that the name staph was based on an erroneous relationship, the use of that word was discouraged.
The name Both’s Hybrids was suggested. By the decade of the 60’s these wonderful plants had reached the U.S. and
England. The name "Stellars" was proposed by Derek Clifford and/or Harold Bagust for the star-like shape of the flowers.
– Swinbourne proposed the name P. x palmatifolium in 1969 for this group. While Sweet, Trattinnick, von Reider,
Andrews and many others gave Latin scientific names to the plants they saw, these days that is not considered necessary
as these are not naturally occurring species. In addition, cultivar names are easier for most people to remember.
Other hybridizers have repeatedly re-confirmed the relationship between ‘Chinese Cactus’ and other zonals in the sub-
sequent years so that now we have cultivars of stellars with many of the same variations seen among the other zonals:
single, semi-double and double flowers; flowers with white eyes, phlox eyes, speckled patterns, bicolors; narrow or
wide petals; golden leaves, gold and bronze leaves, white and gold margined leaves, butterfly patterned leaves, tricolored
leaves; leaves with varying shades of a darker zone or none; mini, dwarf and full sized plants; true breeding seed varieties
and cutting-derived cultivars. While several cultivars of stellars have been described as bird’s egg-flowered cultivars,
close examination of the petals seems to show that they have speckled petals, probably due to the effects of the jumping
genes found in paint-box and New Life-type plants but not the pigmented spots associated with a glandular hair on the
petal. In Europe, bird’s egg-flowered plants and speckled flowered plants are lumped together in the category of "egg
With the decline of specialty nurseries in the U.S. it has become increasingly difficult to find particular, named varieties
of Pelargonium so none are named here. Wonderful varieties are available from many nurseries in Europe and their
websites reveal a wonderful treasure trove of cultivars. Faye Brawner illustrated many in her book,Geraniums –
The Complete Encyclopedia. The websites www.geraniumpage.com , www.alltompelargoner.se/ , and
www.pelargoniumoasen.blogspot.no have many beautiful illustrations (although most of these plants are not available
n the U.S.).
Because Stellars are just a special category of zonal Pelargoniums, their culture and requirements are the same as
for all other zonals. Pests and diseases are the same
Most new varieties are being produced by amateur breeders but on a commercial scale, the English company
FloraNova has a seed line of stellars in a series called Quantum in three colors. Elsner PAC, a large, German commercial
nursery has a vegetatively produced series called Fireworks with five colors available and these may be available in some
Thanks to Gwen Ward for permission to use the images of ‘Chinese Cactus’. See lots more beautiful plants and tons of
information at her website: www.perfect-pelargoniums.com