Say the word “gentian” and immediately a deep blue colour is conjoured up. But members of the gentian family, Gentianaceae, in South Africa are anything but blue. Chironia linoides is one of these members of the Gentianaceae and flowers at Phillipskop through the summer from November to January. Its flowers are best described as China Pink rather than Gentian Blue. Chironia is an African genus of about 30 species and they invariably have bright pink open star-shaped flowers (occasionally the odd white-flowered plant may be found). In the center of each flower, a bunch of five stamens are a contrasting yellow in colour.
Chironia linoides is one of the most widespread species in the genus. It can be distinguished by its unlobed style, relatively small flowers (under 2cm), and capsules that are rounded or blunt at the top. It is found from Namaqualand south as far as Bredasdorp. Not surprisingly for a widespread species it is also very variable. It has consequently been divided into four subspecies. The typical subspecies linoides is the tallest and grows over 30cm high, even up to 1m. The other subspecies rarely reach even 30cm high: subsp. emarginata has broad calyx lobes, about as wide as long; subsp. macrocalyx and subsp. nana have narrow calyx lobes much longer than wide, the former with flowers up to 2cm long, the latter only about 1.5cm long. The subspecies at Phillipskop is Chironia linoides subsp. nana.
The leaves are very narrow and look so similar to the stems that the plants can appear to lack leaves completely. The narrow leaves are one reason for its species name, linoides, which means like the genus Linum. Linum is the Latin for flax and where we get the words linseed and linen from. Flax also has narrow thin leaves like Chironia linoides.
Although the flowers look radially symmetric at first glance, a closer look shows that the stamens and style are bent in opposing directions. This helps to reduce the chance of the style picking up the pollen from its own flower but just right for picking it up from an insect that has visited a different flower. Although not vigorous plants they are certainly eye-catching and flower for a long time after the spring flush. They can be easily grown from cuttings or seed and worth trying to cultivate in a fynbos garden. Here they seed quite readily in bare ground, so we just let them grow up where they germinate.