Sturt Pea: a most splendid plant

South Australia’s state flower can be described as flawless.

Sturt’s Desert Pea is one of Australia’s most arresting flowers and is a fine choice as South Australia’s State Flower. I first remember Sturt’s Desert Pea from either the Shell’s project cards or their posters – which almost all children of a certain age had to collect. The project cards – variously flora, fauna, beetles, shells, birds – were insights into a world I could scarcely believe existed. Indeed I reckoned the more exotic images in that series were as remarkable as any other wonders of the world (alongside Victoria Falls, lions and tigers and the Great Pyramids). Sturt’s Desert Pea, with its elegant red petals set off by an enamel, glossy black centre, seemed so strikingly beautiful, even in these commercial printings, that I could consider few plants to be as exotic and important.

Robert Brown’s description and analysis in Charles Sturt’s 1849 Narrative of an expedition into central Australia perhaps established the enduring connection between Sturt and his pea. That was an account of Sturt’s expedition to the centre of our continent in 1844. William Dampier had first collected the plant in Western Australia in 1699, and other early explorers, such as Edward John Eyre (who collected it from the Gawler Ranges in 1839) might also claim precedence as discoverers. It was perhaps a combination of South Australians’ enthusiasm for growing the plant, and Robert Brown’s august reputation, that ensured Sturt’s commemoration in its enduring name. And given Sturt’s links with the state, beginning with his epic river journey to find the mouth of the River Murray in early 1830, and the fact that much of the natural range of the plant is in the far north of the State, which he also explored, its adoption as our floral emblem might have seemed obvious. In fact that did not happen until 1961.

An outstanding exploration of the botany and horticulture of Sturt’s Desert Pea, and of art and design inspired by it, is found in the recently published (and still to be launched) Sturt pea: a most splendid plant by David Symon and Manfred Jusaitis. At this point I need to declare an interest: the book has been published by the Board of the Botanic Gardens and the State Herbarium, in association with the Department for Environment and Heritage. I also need to start using the authors’ preferred name, Sturt Pea.

Sturt pea: a most splendid plant has a foreword by Steve Hopper, now Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a preface by Valmai Hankel, both of which provide rather more independent testimonials than I can – although even these cannot be described as disinterested! The book will be launched at the Botanic Gardens on May 16 and is of course available at The Botanic Shop at the Schomburgk Pavilion behind the Museum of Economic Botany. Inside the museum, a small but beautiful exhibition displays some of the original materials reproduced in the book, ranging from rare books to artworks and from tea cups to T-shirts. The exhibition will run until July 31 and the Museum will be open 11:00am to 4:00pm seven days a week.

There is a significance in the Sturt Pea beyond the science and art: the flawlessness of the flower, the resilience of the plant and the rightness of the plant’s relationship with central Australia’s landscape is a distillation of Australianness – part of a unique heritage that is immediately accessible, sublimely beautiful and yet ephemeral and mysterious.

Sturt Pea: a most splendid plant by David Symon and Manfred Jusaitis is published by the Board of the Botanic Gardens & State Herbarium. Soft cover $39.90, hard cover $55, deluxe edition quarterbound leather $155.

Sturt Pea (Swainsoiilla forroosa)

Sturt Pea can be flighty. David Symon and Manfred Jusiatis suggest nicking seeds with a sharp blade near the shoot tip – the broader end of the seed. The seed has a clear trace where it attaches to the pod, which shows you where to make the nick (next to the trace rather than across it). The seeds will then take up water and germinate. A recommended medium is sand, perlite and a much smaller proportion of organic peat. Seedlings can be established hydroponically (which is how we showed off flowering plants at Chelsea Rower Show when I was at Kings Park in Perth), in potting mix (although composted pine bark can inhibit growth), or in the ground – with the usual warnings not to allow them to be either too wet or too dry. Transfer of seedlings is a particularly hazardous operation, so try to get them going where you want them to grow. The Gardener’s Chronicle of 1937 observes, it is very interesting to read the views of the various writers, some contending that is was very difficult to grow successfully: others stating that it was quite easy, and … there are many instances in the past of very successful cultivation … under very diverse cultural conditions”. In other words, Sturt Pea is worth trying – the whole point of gardening is experimenting. It is low-growing, so think of it as a ground cover and give it some space to let its runners do their thing and show off its silky leaves in an open situation with good light.

Dr Greg Kirby, who did a great deal of work on Sturt Pea development for floriculture, once assured me that he’d had great success with pig manure! While I’ve no doubt that this is the case, because Sturt Pea can be a gross feeder, some of his other advice is more accessible: for example, don’t expect success replanting last year’s successful plot because a build-up of disease is quite likely. But I’d probably wait until next Spring. If you want to see it in flower before then, a visit to South Australia’s pastoral country in the far north in late winter is one option. Or you can come next summer to the Adelaide Botanic Garden where Sturt Peas will be in flower among the wjhipstick mallees near the Goodman building car-park and also in the mallee and semi-arid land collection next to the east gate on Botanic Road.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 11 May 2007.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



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