What is a plant?

This is Sid. Sid is a pelargonium. He represents many aspects of planthood as Sid the individual plant and as Pelargonium sidoides.


A taxonomic unit

Pelargonium sidoides DC, is a single taxonomic unit in Kingdom Plantae. Pelargoniums are part of the Geraniales order which includes other families such as Melianthaceae and Francoaceae. They are in the Geraniaceae family with close relatives Geranium, Erodium, Monsonia and possibly California. They are typically aromatic and tender, preferring dry to arid regions, most but not all originate from South Africa. Pelargonium as a species has undergone several taxonomic revisions, the most recent of which I can’t access (even with a university library account), so while I can tell you that it was in Section Reniformia, I suspect that Pelargonium Section Reniformia no longer exists.

A botanical artefact
Pelargonium sidoides was first described by de Candolle in 1824, but collected by Thunberg in 1772 (as Pelargonium sidifolium), and Ecklo and Zeyher as Cortusina sidifolia; their  specimen from 1829 can be viewed here. There is also some material in the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew (though it may indeed by the P. reniforme it purports to be)  . It has over the years often been confused with P. reniforme, of which it has sometimes been identified as a subspecies.


An urban myth

You can buy P. sidoides in health food shops in the form of pills for respiratory problems. The active ingredient, Umckaloabo® is also known as EPs7630 (registered to Schwabe Pharmaceuticals); both the name and the usage date from the 1800s.

In 1897 a gentleman called Charles Stevens travelled to South Africa/Lesotho on the recommendation of his doctor to either alleviate the symptoms of, or obtain treatment for his tuberculosis. When there he was treated by a local doctor with Umckaloabo root among other ingredients. He recovered from his tuberculosis, returned to England for a while, then back to South Africa where he marketed his ‘cure’. He returned, bankrupt, to England in 1907 with a supply of material to sell, which he did for many decades.

 Stevens’ Consumption Cure‘ was a patent medicine and there were many competing financial interests involved in the sale of patent medicines at this time; newspapers made a significant amount advertising them, tax was payable on their sales but they were clearly not popular with doctors or the BMA as they were direct competition.

It took until 1974 for the ingredient referred to as Umckaloabo in ‘Stevens’ Cure’ to be identified as Pelargonium sidoides (or P. reniforme). Interestingly this is not (and there is no record of it having been) a word used in any of the numerous languages of South Africa and Lesotho. The sole origin for the word is Stevens’ and all references eventually point back to his usage. The plant also has no history of use as a treatment for respiratory problems in humans. P. sidoides is used for dysentery (pdf) (in both animals and humans) and colic in infants. In Lesotho P. sidoides is used for colic, gonorrhoea, diarrhoea, and dysentery.

So it appears that both the name and the usage, while sounding authentic may be the product of an entrepreneurially inclined Englishman. It is classified as a herbal medicine for human use by the EU.

A bundle of chemicals

As you can see, some of the active compounds in Pelargonium sidoides are named after its dubious other name.


(click for source)

A name or a misnomer

Over the years the scientific name given to this plant has changed

Anisopetala purpurascentia Walp.,
Cortusina sidifolia (Thunb.) Eckl. & Zeyh.,
Geraniospermum sidifolium (Thunb.) Kuntze,
Pelargonium purpurascens Van Eeden ex Hoffmgg.,
Pelargonium rigidum Wendl. ex Hoffmgg.,
Pelargonium sidifolium (Thunb.) Knuth, P
elargonium sidifolium
(Thunb.) Willd.,
Pelargonium spectabile Hort. ex Link,
Pelargonium spectabile Sweet

In addition, many of the plants sold as P. sidoides in the UK are in fact a hybrid between P. sidoides and another plant, and are sometimes known as P Burgundy Group. This is true of Sid, who is likely to be the hybrid, as his leaves are only barely aromatic, and not particularly silvery.

In South Africa and Lesotho it is known under the following names:
khoaare e nyenyane.
Some of these names may also refer to other pelargoniums that are used for similar purposes or have similar appearance.
It is thus sometimes easier to refer to my plant as Sid.


An ecosystem service

Sid creates oxygen as he photosynthesises, he also anchors his little bit of substrate in the pot, which allows it to absorb and slow the flow of rainwater over the property. This is especially helpful as the patch of ground he sits on is concrete covered with gravel, which would otherwise create run-off and add to the flooding at the bottom of my road. Being soft and resilient he absorbs a certain amount of sound, he also transpires water vapour helping to cool and humidify the garden when it is hot. One plant in a pot on a patio makes a miniscule contribution, but one of millions of minuscule contributions over the country.

A living

In Lesotho and South Africa Pelargonium sidioides harvesting (to use to make extract for Umckaloabo pills) acts as a source of income for many local and indigenous people. The plants are difficult to farm, so the material that is needed for pharmaceutical use is often collected by hand from the wild. It is unknown if the harvesting (which involves digging up the tuber) is sustainable in the long-term, but the plant is currently not under threat.

In the UK, P. sidoides is a relatively popular greenhouse and garden plant. I purchased Sid from Warrenorth Nursery in East Sussex in about 2002. Warrenorth were a specialist pelargonium and fuchsia nursery that closed a year or so later. As far as I remember they were a tiny family business, and another rather hand-to-mouth way of making money from pelargoniums. They bred a fair number of very pretty fancy-leaved cultivars that can still be found in specialist growers.

A responsibility

Sid is a living creature, most of the time needing little care. But in the winter it gets too cold to survive outside so some form of protection is needed. Watering regularly both inside and outside is required if it doesn’t rain frequently enough. Interpreting his appearance in combination with the weather conditions, so as to provide what a totally dependant organism from the other side of the world needs is my responsibility; if I fail then Sid will die.

A companion

I have owned Sid for about 15 years or so. In that time, I have moved house several times and he has moved with me. I have owned him longer than most plants and as such I have affection for his ability to survive and readiness to flower. Specifically, he was one of the very few plants in my greenhouse that survived the cold winter of 2010, where the temperature dropped below -5c in the greenhouse. All the top growth was killed, but because he was an old plant in a large pot, he regrew from the roots.

A subject

I have written about Sid a few times, because he represents many aspects of what a plant is, as well as illustrating a few interesting stories. As a photographic subject he is a nightmare, the flowers are held on long wobbly stems far from the actual plant and this makes taking a picture of the whole plant virtually impossible.


A living creature

Sid is an organism that can sense light and dark, gravity, wet and dry. His roots explore the substrate in which he grows; if he were in his native habitat they would be sending and receiving chemical messages and interacting with fungal mycelium in the soil. He is grown away from his home country, in an artificial environment in which it is hard, but not impossible to reproduce and where the sun is so weak his stems have to elongate to get just that bit closer to the light.  He is however protected from the grazing, uprooting, pests and diseases which might end his life at home.

For someone else, the same plant will have completely different meanings: it may be a gift, a source of guilt (never remembering to water or repot), a source of social capital (giving cuttings away to make new friends), a source of genetic capital (using the plant to breed new hybrids) or just something pretty!

Links on my posts go to interesting sources of information, they are intended to add to your enjoyment rather than form a comprehensive system of references or an endorsement of contents. All errors are mine!

©Mercy Morris 2016