Note #9 The Tennis-racket Otidia

The tennis-racket otidia is perhaps not very common in collections and it certainly is not very common in nature either. The available distribution maps broadly show two populations that couldn’t be more geographically separated: northern Namaqualand and the hilly landscape around Matjiesfontein. These are in fact so very separated that the two populations either represent two distinct taxa, or (as with other otidia species that flower in the height of summer) they only ever get noticed by those rare fieldworkers who venture out during the hot summer months, of which there are few around these days, even less so in the Richtersveld.

At the foothills of Vandersterberg

And so it was with no lack of excitement that when I saw a few scattered specimens of what looked like entirely out-of-place shrublets at the foothills of Vendersterberg (Fig. 1), I most hysterically scared away whatever scarce wildlife was basking in the mid-day sun, with my “oh’s” and “ah’s” on an August winter day east of Kuboes in the Northern Cape Province (header photo).

Fig. 1: The foothills of Vandersterberg is where the Richtersveld World Heritage Site begins – one of the few sites listed for its botanical diversity.

This was one of those trips to the Richtersveld that miraculously went by without any flat tyres – much to Andrej’s delight luck was evidently on our side, so we ventured on a day trip to these dry flats that slowly morph into the wilderness of the mountainous desert up above: Vandersterberg is not easily reachable even for the most intrepid plant hunters.

The road (let’s call it that for the sake of the narrative) that leaves Kuboes towards the mountains inevitably becomes less and less recognizable and there is a moment when common sense tells you that it would probably be better to turn around because going any further could easily turn into a car-tastrophe. So it was at that point, decided on the basis of no evidence of potential botanical interest, that we decided to step out for a walk.

These are odd slopes, truly odd. This is where the extremely dry, sandy flats of the coastal Richtersveld give way to gently sloping stony hillsides, evidently receiving just a little bit more moisture, allowing bulbs such as Haemanthus to grow in the shady creeks, and cute little shrublets of Anacampseros to adorn the hilltops. One would expect these habitats to be anything but ordinary (whatever “ordinary” means in Namaqualand!), as each little valley and each little hilltop gives rise to a micro-climate of its own, all the way to the top of the mountain where populations of miniature white-flowered Pelargonium incrassatum are known from – and everyone in the world of pellienuts knows how thirsty these hoareas can be!

Fig. 2: The thick-stemmed and repeatedly branched shrubs looked like any other otidia, although the broad leaf lobes and remains of short inflorescences indicated a taxon close to P. parviflorum.

So there they were: thick stemmed and much-branched otidias, not quite like any other otidias but not quite distinct either (Fig. 2). In their simultaneous uniqueness and similarity with the rest of the section they were quite typical, I suppose. Could this be a runaway parviflorum from the coastal belt close to Alexander Bay, 100 km away or so? Could this be a carnosum that somehow survived in the dryness of the northern Namaqualand, one of those freak populations that apparently occur along the coast up until Swakopmund? The leaves were not hairy as in carnosum ssp. carnosum, although they did have broad pinnae/lobes. The whitish leaf margins indicated the presence of microscopic hair, just as in some other otidias, such as parviflorum. It would have been unusual for these to be polycephalum, as these normally grow quite a bit further inland in the Umdaus and Springbok areas and tend to have thinner and less branched stems. After the initial excitement, my mind was in the state of ultimate confusion.

In the Greenhouse

The solution to the riddle presented itself in the form of a familiar type of inflorescence end of last August (in the northern hemisphere). As I don’t visit my greenhouse as often as I’d like though thankfully more often than the Richtersveld, the same unearthly sounds spontaneously came from my vocal chords when I saw the tennis-racket-shaped petals (Fig. 3). These had a pink hue, which was further very unusual. What a pleasant surprise. After a few years of careful nursing, the small plants happily obliged and will, with some luck, provide seeds in the future.

Fig. 3: The short inflorescences, typical of P. parviflorum, revealed the unusual round petals, slightly longer than sepals, which make ssp. rotundipetalum quite distinct from the type subspecies.

In the Literature

Following Clifton’s [1] recent account, there is little else to add here except that I hope these photographs provide an idea of the habitat and the shapes these plants assume in nature, and likely come from not too far from Drijfhout 2889 (STEU-2876). In Becker’s PhD Thesis [2], this taxon is treated as a subspecies of P. parvipetalum, with which it shares the thick stems and leaf shape, however, petals in the photo tend to be longer than the sepals, and of course their shape is quite distinct. I have not checked the plants in the nature for tubers, but may be able to do so in the future when my seedlings are ready to be re-potted.

The puzzle that remains is the disjunct distribution of this taxon, which is shared with P. pachypodium, which is also known from the Rictersveld (Karrachab Poort) and then a few 100 km away close to Loeriesfontein. This truly calls for more careful fieldwork preferably in the height of summer, when these otidias are in flower and are slightly easier to identify. More “mad dogs and Englishmen”, please!

Fig. 4: In Kuboes, rubbish can become art in a rather masterful stroke of conceptualist genius. Marcel Duchamp could have learned here.

By Matija Strlic, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


  1. R. Clifton: Pelargonium rotundipetalum, International Geraniaceae Group News, no. 151, 2018, pp. 14, 17-20.
  2. M. Becker: Revision der Pelargonium – Sektion Otidia (Geraniaceae) aus dem Winterregengebiet des südlichen Afrikas und Bewertung evolutiver Strategien der Pelargonien aus der Capensis, PhD Thesis, University of Münster, 2006.

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: The Tennis-racket Otidia, Pelargonium Notes, #9 (2018).

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