Photo by Melody

Peculiar Pocketbook Flower

By Audrey Stallsmith (AudreyJuly 7, 2014

Do you remember the little leather change purses with snap clasps at the top that our grandmothers or great-aunts used to carry? The shape of calceolaria or pocketbook flowers reminds me of the semi-circular appearance of those pouches.

Gardening picture

Calceolaria arachnoideaMost of us know the plants--if we know them at all--as the Herbeohybrida group of florist's flowers sold as potted plants in late winter or early spring. Because many of the older types required short days and cool temperatures to produce their blooms, that was the logical time to market them.  Gardeners in zones USDA 9 to 11 would sometimes sow them in summer and set them in shady beds in the fall for spring bloom as well. 

Because I've never seen pocketbook flowers for sale hereabouts, I assume they are more popular in other sections of the country.  Fortunately, I discovered some species types which can be grown in the garden instead.  Native to Central or South America, the perennials will often bloom in late spring to early summer and the annuals in mid to late summer.

Calceolaria arachnoideaA couple years back, I received seeds of the annual Calceolaria mexicana in a trade.  I found them easy to grow in the shade, though I think mine remained short rather than reaching the 20-inch height of which they are supposedly capable.  However, they did churn out plenty of 1/2 inch yellow flowers, which resembled droplets of sunlight falling through the foliage of the overhead trees.

Calceolaria canaMost of the species types--such as the annual chelidonioides, profusa, and tripartita and the perennial biflora, falklandica, and filicaulis--do bloom in yellow, sometimes with a spattering or red freckles.  But there are more colorful exceptions to the golden rule.  Calceolarias are also called slipperworts and a few of those slippers are heavily embroidered!  (Keep in mind that perennial is a relative term.  Except for biflora, which I have seen listed as hardy to at least zone 5, even the toughest calceolarias are probably only dependably perennial to about zone 6.)

In a trade this year, I received seeds of Calceolaria arachnoidea, pictured in the botanical print at the upper left of this page and in the photo below the thumbnail.  It boasts plush and silvery leaves, similar to those of lamb's ears, and dark purple flowers.  It too proved easy to grow.  Since it is listed as hardy to zone 6, it actually has a chance of surviving here in zone 5B, though the seedlings which I started in February haven't bloomed yet. 

A couple others at which I have made a stab were the showy Calceolaria cana and gaping-mouthed "Walter Shrimpton" varieties (both hardy to only about zone 8) depicted above and below.  I only had a few seeds of each, which either didn't germinate at all for me or the tiny seedlings damped off so quickly that I didn't notice they had.  I may try sowing them atop a thin layer of sand or peat next time.Calceolaria youngii

Calceolaria Walter ShrimptonSome pocketbook flowers will grow in full sun, but their preference for temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit makes partial shade the best option.  Partial shade and well-drained ground.  The plants may rot where winters are wet, but don't like arid conditions either. 

For those of you who prefer vines, this genus even offers one of those. Calceolaria tomentosa can scramble 6 to 8 feet with relatively large 1 1/2 to 2-inch yellow "pocketbooks" in zones 9 and up. 

Calceolaria youngii, shown to the right here, also intrigues me, but the only references I could find to it were in old books.  So it may have died out or been renamed.  Or perhaps it is just lounging on a South American slope somewhere, with its slippers up, remembering its glory days!     

The Calceolaria arachnoides and cana photos are by Annie's Annuals and the "Walter Shrimpton" photo by Lawrence M., all from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles.  The Calceolaria arachnoidea botanical print is by W. J. Hooker from an 1828 edition of Curtis's Botanical Magazine and the Calceolaria youngii print from an 1831 edition of Edward's Botanical Register, both courtesy of


  About Audrey Stallsmith  
Audrey StallsmithAudrey is the author of the Thyme Will Tell mystery series from WaterBrook Press (Random House) and an e-book of humorous rural romances titled Love and Other Lunacies. In addition to digging up plots--both garden variety and novel--the former Master Gardener writes free articles on plant history and folklore for her Thyme Will Tell site and posts her photos at . Audrey also designs hay-seedy stuff and nonsense for her Rustic Ramblings Zazzle store, and indulges in mystery novels, apologetics, cryptic crosswords, old lace, beads, and Border Collies. Follow her on Google.

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