Sparaxis elegans, Cape buttercup, Harlequin Flower, South African bulbs seeds, 25 seeds

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Common names: Cape buttercup, pale harlequin flower , spogfluweeltjie (African)

Sparaxis elegans is, as its name suggests, one of the most elegant and aesthetically pleasing species in Family Iridaceae. Its most striking features are the colourful patterning and curious way the anthers twist around the style.

Sparaxis elegans is a perennial plant reaching heights of 100–300 mm. It has a rounded corm as its main underground rootstock, measuring 10–17 mm in diameter, with a fine fibrous outer coating. Stems are simple or in some cases branching from the base. The stems bear 3–5 symmetrical flowers.

The flowers of Sparaxis elegans are predominantly salmon-pink, orange or white. Flowers are purple in the centre and have a ring of distinctive yellow and black markings). Unscent. The male reproductive parts (or stamens) are very distinct for this species: the purple filaments display anthers that are S-shaped and tightly curled around the style. This morphological feature is not seen in any other member of the genus.

According to Goldblatt and Manning (2013), the end of the flowering period, which ranges from August to September (*South Africa) (editor's note *flowering time in Malta is March-April, in temperate climates probably later in spring because bulbs aren't frost hardy and can only be planted in early spring), yields somewhat ‘unremarkable' fruits. Fruits are cartilaginous and split soon after drying to release spherical seeds that flaunt a glossy-red colour.

Sparaxis elegans is classified as Vulnerable in the South African Red List.

Sparaxis elegans is endemic to the Western Cape. The species is restricted to winter rainfall regions of South Africa and generally grow in light to heavy nutrient-rich clay soils. The more common salmon-pink form occurs in the northern Nieuwoudtville area, and the white-flowered form occurs to the south.

The genus name is derived from the Greek sparasso (meaning to tear), pertaining to the lacerated bracts that surround the flowers. The species name is derived from the Latin elegans, which most likely pertains to the graceful and elegant colouration and patterning of the tepals.

The genus Sparaxis has been introduced and cultivated in Europe since the 1780s.

For a genus composed of only 16 species, the pollination systems within Sparaxis are unusually diverse. Hopliine beetle (Peritrichia rufotibialis), tabanid fly, Philoliche atricornis frequently visits the species. S. elegans is the only species that produces dark purple to brown pollen. Goldblatt and Manning suggest this is a way to camouflage pollen from pollen-collecting insects. S. elegans is able to produce seeds via self-pollination when conditions for cross-pollination are not met. Sparaxis species are interfertile and hybrids between S. elegans and S. grandiflora have been produced.

They are excellent for containers and make great, long-lasting cut flowers.

Growing Sparaxis elegans

Sparaxis elegans plants prefer full sun and well-drained loam soils, although they do well in a range of different soil types. Plant corms in spring, about 50 mm deep and 70–100 mm apart. Grow them in bold groups of 25 individuals or more, in order to experience the full effect of the radiant colours.


Species also makes an excellent container subject and are displayed to great advantage in rock garden pockets that are kept dry in summer. Plants are sensitive to frost and should not be grown in pots when temperatures drop below 0°C for extended periods. Water seedlings well, but after flowering, soils must be left to dry completely to allow corms to ripen. Corms can stay in soils for long periods but in containers overcrowding of the rootstock may occur and separation is necessary.

Separating cormlets from parent corms is a great way to increase the stock.

Growing Sparaxis Elegans from seeds

It is easy to germinate seeds providing seeds are sown in autumn. Some seedlings will flower after one year but all will be of flowering size in the second season. When growing plants in containers, use a light sandy soil mix. Keep soils moist and well watered as soon as germination has taken place. Grow seedling until the foliage dies down, upon which corms can be remove from the soil and cormlets separated by size. Those that are large enough can be re-planted to flower and the remainder are replanted in rows for another growing season.

These plants are hardy and seldom attacked by any pests or diseases , although slugs and snails do relish the foliage, and porcupines are known to eat the corms. The most likely problems that may occur are those caused by too much water in summer; the corms are subject to fungal rotting if not kept dry.

©Brittany Arendse ,