Harlequin flower (Sparaxis tricolor)

Also known as: wand flower, wandflower
Synonyms: Streptanthera tricolor
GenusSparaxis (1)
SizeHeight: 10 - 30 cm (2) (3)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the Red List of South African Plants (4).

The bright and attractive harlequin flower can be readily identified by its characteristic orange-red flowers, which have yellow and black markings in the centre (3) (5) (6). Each flower is bowl-shaped, measuring around five to eight centimetres in diameter, and has a short funnel-shaped tube at the centre, and six petal-like tepals (2) (3) (6). As in other Sparaxis species, another distinctive feature of this plant is its dry, papery floral bracts, which are pale in colour, with brown streaks (5) (6) (7). The leaves of Sparaxis species are pale green, slightly fleshy, narrow and lance-shaped, and grow in a fan from an underground storage organ known as a corm (1) (2) (3) (5) (7).

The harlequin flower is endemic to the north-western Cape Province of South Africa, in a region of high plant diversity known as the Cape Floristic Region, where it is restricted to the northern end of the Bokkeveld Escarpment, northwest of Nieuwoudtville (5). The species has also been introduced to California, in the United States (6).

Like other Sparaxis species, the harlequin flower grows in the winter-rainfall region of southern Africa, where it is found on clay soils in renosterveld (5) (7). Where it has been introduced in the United States, this species is reported to occur near gardens, dump sites and abandoned dwellings (6).

The harlequin flower is a perennial plant, flowering annually around September in its native range (3), or between March and April where it occurs in the United States (6). Each flower bears both male and female reproductive parts (1). The harlequin flower is pollinated by scarab beetles and tabanid flies (3) (8), with the distinctive dark markings on the flowers, known as “beetle marks”, believed to attract the beetle pollinators (7) (8) (9). As in other Sparaxis species, the fruit of the harlequin flower is a capsule containing around 24 to 30 seeds, which are spherical, hard and shiny, and generally brown in colour (1) (5) (7).

Due to their bright, colourful blooms, Sparaxis species are valued as ornamental plants, and the harlequin flower has been widely cultivated (1) (7). Many hybrids have also been created in cultivation (7), most of which are reported to derive from crosses that included this species (5). However, the impact of these practices on the wild population is unknown. Of greatest threat to the harlequin flower, as with many of South Africa’s endemic plants, is habitat loss and alteration within the unique Cape Floristic Region (10) (11). The harlequin flower’s habitat is only marginally suitable to agriculture, although some has been ploughed in the past. Three known populations are not currently declining, but habitat loss to agriculture remains a potential threat (12).

The Cape Floristic Region of South Africa is considered a global biodiversity ‘hotspot’, and is a designated World Heritage Site and Global Centre of Plant Diversity, being home to the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world. The region faces many threats, but it has been intensely researched and also contains a number of National Parks and protected areas (10) (11), although none of the known populations of the harlequin flower currently occur in any of these (12). Conservation initiatives in the region include the Working for Water Programme, which is making efforts to remove alien plants, encourage regeneration of natural vegetation, and protect watersheds (11) (13). These and other measures may hopefully go some way towards helping preserve the region’s unique plants, including the beautiful harlequin flower.

For more information on South African plants see:

To find out more about conservation in the Cape Floristic Region see:

Authenticated (06/07/10) by Lize von Staden, Red List Scientist, Threatened Species Programme, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.

  1. Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  2. Ellis, B.W. (2001) Taylor’s Guide to Bulbs: How to Select and Grow 480 Species of Spring and Summer Bulbs. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  3. Goldblatt, P., Manning, J.C. and Bernhardt, P. (2000) Adaptive radiation of pollination mechanisms in Sparaxis (Iridaceae: Ixioideae). Adansonia, 22(1): 57-70.
  4. Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W., Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. and Manyama, P.A. (2009) Red List of South African Plants. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
  5. Goldblatt, P. (1992) Phylogenetic analysis of the South African genus Sparaxis (including Synnotia) (Iridaceae-Ixioideae), with two new species and a review of the genus. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 79(1): 143-159.
  6. Goldblatt, P. (2003) Sparaxis tricolor. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee. (Eds.) Flora of North America North of Mexico. Volume 26. Flora of North America Editorial Committee, New York and Oxford. Available at:
  7. Goldblatt, P. and Manning, J.C. (2008) The Iris Family: Natural History and Classification. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.
  8. Goldblatt, P., Bernhardt, P. and Manning, J.C. (1998) Pollination of petaloid geophytes by monkey beetles (Scarabaeidae: Rutelinae: Hopliini) in southern Africa. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 85(2): 215-230.
  9. Van Kleunen, M., Nänni, I., Donaldson, J.S. and Manning, J.C. (2007) Role of beetle marks and flower colour on visitation by monkey beetles (Hopliini) in the Greater Cape Floral Region, South Africa. Annals of Botany, 100: 1483-1489.
  10. UNEP-WCMC: Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, Western Cape and Eastern Cape Provinces, South Africa (January, 2010)
  11. Conservation International: Biodiversity Hotspots - Cape Floristic Region (January, 2010)
  12. Von Staden, L. (July, 2010) Pers. comm.
  13. Department of Water Affairs, Republic of South Africa: Working for Water (January, 2010)