Note #6 Portrait of John Lavranos, Pelargonium Plantsman

If interested in Pelargonium, there are pretty good odds that you are growing a species found by John Lavranos. One in ten, to be exact, if specializing in the section Hoarea: he collected P. aestivale, P. connivens, P. curviandrum, P. githagineum, P. luteopetalum, P. vinaceum and P. xanthopetalum before their formal description. Sarcocaulon growers know where the epithet of S. lavrani comes from. Yet, unless generally interested in succulents (the Cactus and Succulent Journal dedicated an issue to John in 2006 [1]), few Pelargonium enthusiasts are well acquainted with his lifetime’s-worth of botanical discovery and plantsmanship.

At 91, John is as passionate, generous and sharing as ever: “My enthusiasm for Pelargonium species dates back to my childhood when my mother grew a variety of ‘geraniums’ in our garden in Corfu. When, in 1952, I moved to South Africa, the variety of pelargoniums in the botanical garden of ‘The Wilds’ in Johannesburg, further excited my fancy, as did the large array of other indigenous plants.” Having spent a number of years in the navy, John’s only desire then was to move out of postwar Europe. After the move to Johannesburg with his first wife Helen, they never looked back.

Once in Joburg, John found the time to study towards a degree in botany and geography at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, while already engaging in fieldwork from around 1960 onwards. After the move in 1990, to Portugal with wife Mireille, journeys took him to Namibia, Madagascar, Somalia (Fig. 1) and Yemen, where pelargoniums are less common. His interest in languages served him well on trips: John speaks nine! Collecting continued until 2012, after half a century of continuous discovery. Funding for local trips came out of his own pocket, while trips abroad were paid by personal or institutional contributions and donations. John’s field collections extend to 32,000 specimens, all duly and thoroughly documented, as testified by the comprehensive list of collection data that was recently compiled and published by Roy Mottram [2].


Fig. 1: On the road down from the Mait Escarpment with the tools of the trade, N of Erigaabo (Erigavo), Somalia, 1969. Credit: John Lavranos.

This was the golden era of plant hunting, continuing the tradition of botanical exploration that started in earnest in the late 18th Century, often funded by nurseries and patrons. The comparison with another expat living in Portugal, Friderik Welwitsch (Velbič) of Austrian-Slovenian origin comes to mind: following a botany expedition to Angola funded by the King of Portugal, Welwitsch returned to Europe in October 1863 with 42 boxes of about 10,000 specimens. The first collections of pelargoniums were even earlier than that: the Dutchman Paul Hermann was probably the first to collect pelargoniums in southern Africa in the second half of the 17th Century. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these explorations to horticulture: the market for pelargonium cultivars has a lot to be thankful for to these intrepid explorers. It’s a big market as well, e.g. in Sweden, one pelargonium plant and a half was sold per inhabitant in 2008 only, 12 million in total [3]!

Back in the 1960s-80s, travelling to exotic places was still prohibitively expensive for most, and local regulations were lenient. John collected plants, bulbs, seeds and herbarium specimens, which he simply laid out in sheets of newspaper and pressed them by sitting on the lot. This seemed to have worked quite well – his many Pelargonium collections are now part of Stellenbosch, Pretoria and other herbaria. “I usually ended up with six or seven heavy cartons of material but I somehow managed not to lose anything by sending them home individually by mail, or together by airfreight,” tells John, who also keenly collected sea and land-shells, fossils and geological specimens. This worked until the demand for wild plants (and especially animals) increased so much that the pressure to collect led to CITES regulations having been accepted in 1973. Since then, local regulations have additionally reduced the pressure on natural populations, especially after air travel became cheaper and many species became significantly depleted in their natural habitats.

John’s interest then turned to countries that were less explored: East Africa, Madagascar and Arabia, where local experts continued to be welcoming. “It was a wonderful surprise when I found P. cristophoranum at its type locality and at another site,” John tells us – his photo clearly depicting this extraordinary species (Fig. 2). John also collected P. multibracteatum on both sides of the Gulf of Aden as well as P. luridum. Between 1968 and 1989 John made at least 10 trips to Somalia (where now, plant populations remain safe due to civil unrest).


Fig. 2: P. christophoranum, growing at the type locality on the gypsum/anhydrite hill of Kuruwadne, approximately 12 km NE of Erigaabo (Erigavo), Somalia, 1971. Credit: John Lavranos.

Throughout, John remained close to pelargoniums. Piet Vorster, whose work defined our views of the section Otidia, has been a close friend for some 50 years, sharing not only the love for Pelargonium species but also for classical music, particularly Beethoven. Piet and John made a number of field trips together, exchanged visits and met several times in the UK. John holds Piet in high regard: “He is an accomplished scientist but has very much his own mind.” Many of us who have studied Bettie Marais’s PhD Thesis in detail, noticed that John’s herbarium specimens are often cited – John and Bettie probably never met but he certainly made his mark on the section.

The exquisitely produced book on bushman candles was co-authored with Charles Craib, Pelargonium nurseryman, collector and scholar: “The book is the only one in the writing of which I had a part that I am really proud of! It is as close to perfect (at least to my eyes) as any book can be,” affirms John.

To my mind, this book comes as close to ideal as it gets: beautifully illustrated, evidently based on ample experience, with plenty of information on ecology and habitats, and clearly a labour of love. John holds the late Charles Craib in high regard: “Charles was a very gifted man who had a sense of artistry that leaves me feeling like a talentless idiot. At the same time he was often moody and changed his mind about people and subjects, as often as I (with apologies for the expression) change my underpants”. John’s quote illustrates both candour and wit of the kind that come with experience and wisdom. Extensive joint travels across South Africa and Namibia from about 1985 were prematurely discontinued with Charles’s tragic passing at the age of 56.

The Madagascan P. caylae is another part of John’s heritage. Of this species there exists only the type collection at Masiro, at the eastern base of the Andohahelo Range, on a granite outcrop. The original plant was sent to John by Professor Millot in about 1955, when he was the Director of ORSTOM in Madagascar (Office De La Recherche Scientifique Et Technique Outre-Mer). John tells us that cuttings were forwarded to America and what of it is at present in circulation stems from Dr Gary James, of Costa Mesa, in California, who has been very successful with the propagation of this and other rare species.


Fig. 3:  P. caylae was also introduced to cultivation by John Lavranos. With its meters tall stalks, this is a curious Madagascan species, now grown by many. Few know that all of the plants in horticulture originate from a single collection.

Of altogether 12 trips to Madagascar, John was frequently accompanied by Jean-André Audissou, himself an experienced nurseryman and explorer from Fouras, France, in 2005. The two came into contact after Jean-André published an article [4] on Caralluma mireillae, which John named to honour his wife. Jean-André vividly describes a typical day in the bush: “After a frugal breakfast, we leave Toliara at 6am, northwards towards Andavadoaka, following a sandy coastal track accessible to all-terrain vehicles only. We looked for Pachypodium mikea described earlier that year, saw Didiera madagascariensis in flower, Oeceoclades and Stapelianthus species, and finally the ultimate goal for the day: several hundred years old specimens of Adansonia rubrostipa. We would stop at midday to eat bananas and a few slices of a sausage brought from Portugal, in the shade of Euphorbia plagiantha. After arrival in Andavadoaka in mid-afternoon, we settled down in a palm-roofed bungalow and before nightfall, we walked the beach in search of exotic seashells on the Mozambique Strait beach. The dinner consisted of crayfish – for the cost of a couple of euros. The dinnertime was an opportunity for John to tell a thousand and one anecdotes about his travels over the last 60 years.”


Fig. 4: Jean-André Audissou, Zakamisy – local guide, and John Lavranos at Windsor Castle, near Antsiranana, Madagascar, 2005. Credit: Jean-André Audissou.

Asked about growing pelargoniums, John enthusiastically responds: “Most certainly I would like to have a Pelargonium collection, if my advancing years allowed such a luxury! All I keep now is a plant of P. pachypodium, from Loeriesfontein and one of P. cotyledonis, both in pots, and things like P. quercifolium, P. fulgidum, P. abrotanifolium, P. triste and a couple of others in the garden here.” By ‘here’, John means Loulé, a small town near Faro in south Portugal.


Fig. 5: If John Lavranos’s contribution to the knowledge of succulent plants were to be compared to a plant, a baobab would come to mind. Credit: Jean-André Audissou.

John has had 17 taxa named after him, of which 8 are asclepiads and 5 are Aloe species. He published about 180 taxa himself, and brought countless more to cultivation. As habitat loss accelerates due to agricultural and developmental pressures, John’s extraordinary work is becoming more and more valuable and may well become the only testament to the existence of some of the most bizarre, rare and fascinating plant species that evolution has ever had to offer.

By Matija Strlic, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


[1] Cactus and Succulent Journal, 78 (2006) no. 2.

[2] John Lavranos, Roy Mottram: “The plant gatherings and other vouchers of John J Lavranos. An interpreted checklist from 1954 to 2016 in numerical order. Part 1: List in numerical order.” The Cactician 10 (2017) 1-1193.

[3] John Lavranos, Roy Mottram: “The plant gatherings and other vouchers of John J Lavranos. An interpreted checklist from 1954 to 2016 in numerical order. Part 2: List in alphabetic order.” The Cactician 11 (2017) 1-883.

[4] Anna-Karin Johansson: “A history of geranium culture.” Floraculture International, 25 Mar 2008.

[5] Jean-Andre Audissou: The genus Caudanthera Plowes, Asklepios 80 (2000) 12-13.

Citation and Copyright

© The Author. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
ISSN 2464-014X.

Cite as: M. Strlič: Portrait of John Lavranos, a Pelargonium plantsman, Pelargonium Notes, #6 (2017).

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