Pincushion, Speldekussing - Leucospermum cordifolium

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Leucospermum cordifolium. Picture courtesy cordifolium. Picture courtesy Leucospermum cordifolium is indigenous to South Africa and belongs to the Protea family. It occurs only in the winter rainfall region of in the South Western Cape, in a fairly small area from Kogelberg to Soetanysberg near Bredasdorp. It thrives in the wet winters and hot dry summers, growing on slopes close to the ocean, in gravely, nutrient poor acidic soils.

Leucospermum cordifolium is one of the most decorative of the pincushions and makes a fine show in the garden. The long-stemmed cut flowers last extremely well on the plant and in the vase and are cherished by florists around the world for their unusual form. Nurseries in Zimbabwe, Israel, California, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand produce vast quantities of cut flowers for the world markets from hybrids and cultivars of this plant.

L. cordifolium makes an excellent focal point in the garden, and has great impact if planted in groups.  When young it has a rounded, spreading shape, growing about 1.25 to 1.5m tall and 1.5 to 2m wide. The shrubs have a single main stem with many horizontally spreading branches and hard green leaves. The stems tend to curve upward, giving the whole plant a rather elegant form. Mature specimens may spread 4m wide.

The characteristic pincushion- like flowers can appear at anytime from late winter to early spring and summer, and a mature plant can carry as many as 300 or more flowers at one time. Various hybrids are available with colours ranging from pale yellow and orange to deep orange-red and orange. It is the stiff protruding styles of the flowers which are the source of the common name "pincushion". The flowers are not self-pollinating and produce an abundance of nectar to attract pollinators like a variety of insects and birds; including the Cape sugar bird and 3 species of sunbirds. In the wild the large, hard, nut-like fruit is collected by ants and stored underground in their nests. They will germinate again only after a fire has destroyed the mature plants and returned the nutrients back to the soil.

Pincushions are fairly adaptable and will grow in most areas of the country if their needs are met. They grow best in the winter rainfall regions of the Cape where the rainfall is high from autumn to spring, and because they grow on slopes in close proximity to the sea, the plants still receive some humidity and mist during the long hot and dry summers. When grown inland ensure that they are watered regularly from autumn to spring and that they are planted in extremely well-drained soil. They are hardy to moderate frost once established but need protection when young. Like all Proteas they require an open windy position in full sun, and well drained acid soil. They will not thrive in very alkaline soil. If your soil is not acidic add some acid compost to the planting hole.

These plants resent disturbance of any kind, so never cultivate around their roots and grow them in a part of the garden where they can be left undisturbed. Feed only with organic fertilisers and prune after flowering if required. In the winter rainfall regions new plants are best planted out in autumn before the rains arrive, and in the summer rainfall regions it is best to plant in spring or early summer when all danger of frost is over. When purchasing your plants, remember that smaller plants will transplant easier than large specimens. The shrubs are relatively short lived and become leggy after about eight years. They are very sensitive to the fungal disease Phytophthora cinnamomeum.

Fresh seed can be sown in late summer but the seeds need to be soaked overnight in water to which hydrogen peroxide has been added, at the ratio of 1% of the total volume. This will loosen the hard outer seed-coat so that it can be rubbed off before planting. Dust or spray the seed with a fungicide before sowing in seed trays, ensuring that the soil drains well. Cover the seed with a layer of washed river sand and place the trays in a sunny position. Germination should begin within 3 to 4 weeks, but is erratic, so the seedlings should be transplanted in batches. Do not allow the seedlings to become too large in the trays, or the roots can become too long. Very carefully prick them out of the trays and plant them into larger containers, ensuring that you do not damage the root-tip.

Hybrid cultivars are propagated by semi-hardwood cuttings taken in middle to late summer. Take 6 to 10cm long pieces from the current season's growth and place them in a liquid rooting solution for a couple of seconds before planting. Place the cuttings in a growing house with a bottom heat of 25°C with intermittent mist and they will grow quickly.

Additional Info

  • Common Name: Pincushion, Speldekussing
  • Latin Name: Leucospermum cordifolium