Sandy’s Garden ... Gerbera

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

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I was wondering what to take to friends as a small present in recognition of their invitation to join them for dinner.

I turned … as one does … to that section of a large local supermarket given over to pot plants and cut flowers. And there it was … an inexpensive, attractive pot plant simply asking to be bought – a gerbera. Oddly, it seems to me, gerberas are not much rated in most books on floriculture. Categorised as a ‘fun plant’ in my 1993 edition of Dr. D.G. Hessayon’s The House Plant Expert, it is pretty summarily dismissed in these words: “Gerbera jamesonii has been grown as a flowering pot plant for many years, the blooms appearing between May and August. … The trouble with the basic species is the height of the flower stalks – these can reach 2 ft. and give the plant a lanky appearance. Recently more compact strains have appeared.”

Since these words were written, more compact strains have indeed appeared, as have strains which flower outwith the period May to August, as evidenced by the choice of gerberas in full flower in the supermarket in October. Native to the tropical regions of South America, Africa and Asia, the gerbera was not recognised by serious botanists before the Glasgow University graduate Joseph Dalton Hooker … almost always known as J.D. Hooker … described Gerbera jamesonii in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1889. Hooker was one of the greatest of the many great 19th century British botanists and explorers and was Charles Darwin’s closest friend. He wrote of a plant which grew wild in South Africa and which was to become known variously as the African daisy, the Transvaal daisy and the Baberton daisy; so, gentle reader, you now know, if you did not know this before, that the gerbera is a member of the daisy family, a fact which gives you a good idea of the general appearance of the flowers, which come in a wide variety of sizes and warm colours including white, yellow, orange, red, and pink.

Usually sold nowadays under its proper botanical name of Gerbera, the plant was named in honour of Traugott Gerber, whose entry in Wikipedia begins with these words, “Traugott Gerber wurde am 16. Januar 1710 in Zodel als viertes Kind des Zodeler Pastorenehepaares Johann George Gerber und Sidonia Gerber, getauft.” This translates as, “Traugott Gerber was baptized on January 16, 1710 in Zodel the fourth child of Zodeler Pastor couple Johann George Gerber and Sidonia Gerber.” Little is known of Traugott’s earlier life, but we do know that he had a great interest in ... and extensive knowledge of … the botanical world. By the age of 25 he was working as a doctor in Russia and was the director of the oldest botanical gardens in Moscow … quite an achievement for a young German! During his time there, Gerber led expeditions in his adopted country in search of medicinal plants and herbs. He went to Finland as a Russian Army doctor in 1742: but just one year later he was dead at the age of 33.

Gerbera jamesonii, the specific member of the Gerbera genus from which most of today’s very large number of cultivars derive, was named after Robert Jameson, a plant hunter who was the first European to describe the plant he found in South Africa in 1889. It has become very popular as a pot plant; and it merits this popularity, for it is pretty, generally compact nowadays and fairly undemanding of its carers. Keep a gerbera cosy when it is in flower, keep its soil moist … not wet … and mist the leaves occasionally. It quite likes some sunshine, although any bright spot will do. It is possible to keep a gerbera after the flowers have finished: but they are inexpensive and I would simply discard it when its flowers pass.