The flowers may look as if they are pinning back their ears too, as their white petals are usually reflexed. Reminding me of a sparkly shower of fireworks, the "stirring" maroon and gold stamens are what give the 1 1/2 to 2-inch blooms their moxie -- as well as their movability! They appear on long stalks in clusters of up to ten to twenty flowers each.
The plant is also called cape hollyhock, though it can grow even taller than that particular garden biennial, up to 25 feet in the wild. Its furry leaves, sometimes heart-shaped and sometimes lobed, can reach 10 inches in length under ideal conditions.
Other nicknames for this plant include indoor linden or house lime -- for its relation to the linden tree -- and African hemp, because it was once used to make an inferior fiber. It is named for the Swedish doctor and naturalist, Anders Sparmann. After returning from a voyage with Captain Cook, the fearless physician stumbled across this species during his own explorations of South Africa, about the time the American Revolution was in full swing in 1776.
He took sparmannia back to Sweden with him and, strangely enough, a species that can grow 6 feet in a single summer become a popular house plant in Europe. (The plate to the left here appeared in an 1801 edition of Curtis's Botanical Magazine.) The plant must have endured the cool conditions and low light of that era's minimally heated homes surprisingly well. But, then, I've found most members of the mallow family to be easygoing plants.
There is a lot of contradictory information out there on how much light this mallow really prefers. Some hold that it needs full sun, while others recommend bright but indirect light. Considering that the cape stock rose often grows on the edges of woodlands in Africa, I'd recommend full sun in winter and partial shade for the rest of the year. If any of you have information to the contrary, please let me know.
Sparmannia is supposed to bloom most heavily from mid-winter through spring, though it can flower sporadically at other times of year as well. I haven't had any success at starting a plant from seed yet, but cuttings are supposed to root easily.
There is also a splashy variegated type of cape stock rose available, Sparmannia africana variegata, and a double variety called Sparmannia africana flore-pleno. On the latter, the striking stamens are mostly smothered by petals, but it still has a charming fluffy and frilly look. Of the eight other species of sparmannia which grow wild in Africa and Madagascar, I've only seen seeds offered of ricinocarpa. Since some photos show it as white-flowered and others as pink-flowered, I'm not even going to try to describe it--except to say that it appears to have lobed leaves.
Because Sparmannia africana shoots up so rapidly, you will probably have to do a lot of repotting and pruning if you raise it as a houseplant. Those of you in USDA zones 9 to 11 can try it outdoors instead, and allow it to expand to its heart's content.
Photos: The thumbnail photo is by JMK, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The upper left and lower right photos are by John Benoot and Evert respectively, from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The city photo is by Josh*m, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons. The print is from an 1801 edition of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.