Friday, February 14, 2014

In Praise of South African bulbs

It is widely believed that the cape district of South Africa contains the world's greatest diversity of flowering bulbs. The sheer breadth, not to mention the colors, of these species has long been celebrated. It is always puzzling to me then that some are not familiar with many of these genera/species. I touched upon the subject briefly in a feature article I did for the S.F. Chronicle in February of 2011. Those wanting to check out this article can google the subject and my last name to find it. Late winter/early spring is the prime season for these colorful and sometimes dramatic flowers. The first to bloom are the Lachenalias, known as cowslips. This one genus has over 90 species, making it one of the most diverse of all the S. African (SAF) bulbs. Ferrarias follow and you may never seen a stranger bloom from a bulb than this beautiful but eerie flower. Freesias (yes they are native to S. Africa), Sparaxis, Babianas, Ixia and Gladiola follow. Here are photos, taken from my garden over the last five years, of a number of my favorite SAF bulbs, with comments attached. They are roughly in order of bloom time.

Here are three Lachenalia species, the first one L. tricolor and the other two lacking positive ID. If given a summer dry period, cowslips are one of the easiest SAF bulbs to grow. They come in nearly every color, though blues, purples, pinks and whites predominate. They are reliable rebloomers, something that cannot be said about a great many bulbs. Although I have not seen them sold in packages in retail nurseries, they can be found online or in 4" pots in certain nurseries.

As mentioned above, Ferraria flowers might be the oddest in the whole world of bulbs (and that's saying something). They are an interesting mix of colors in one flower, with usually spotted or striped centers, and they all feature heavily crinkled edges that some have compared to starfish. Their exotic looks, and the fact that many people have never heard of them, might lead one to think they are difficult. Au contraire. Once established, they are hardy, even vigorous. These two species -- below F. crispa and above the chocolate F. crispa ssp nortieri -- are gradually colonizing my front yard bed.

A lot of people have seen this bulb growing wild around the Bay Area and probably wondered what the heck it is. It's Chasmanthe 'Bicolor' and it is one of the easiest bulbs to grow. Some have reported it to be semi-invasive but it has been well-behaved in my garden. A cheerful February bloomer.

Everyone will recognize this freesia and they have become so ubiquitous that it may surprise some to realize that this bulb's origins are in South Africa. Of course, the ones we buy in stores are hybrids and tend to be larger than the original species. Take note, that is a theme with SAF bulbs that have crossed over to become staples of the American garden.

Right behind Lachenalias for being easy to grow are Babianas. Their common name is Baboon flower and while it is very common for flowers to be given poetic names, in this case, yes, baboons do eat this bulb in South Africa. The above photo is of unspecified species/variety while the photo below is of B. stricta. Incidentally, there is a very curious babiana, B. ringens, whose common name is Rats-Tail babiana, though I'm not sure how its red flowers remind anyone of that rodent.

Moraeas are a wonderful, and diverse genus. The only species that you may be familiar with, M. iridioides, has now been put under the Dietes genus. It's that very common Iris family member with the white and purple petals that you see planted everywhere. There are many showier Moraea, including the one above. M. villosa is nicknamed Peacock moraea and you can see why! Some moraeas are fussy, some not. My experience with M. villosa has been very positive. In the fussy category would be the Moraea atropunctata, shown below. It's not the greatest photograph but it's the only one because it only bloomed once in four years. But I just noticed today that the pot has a flower spike nestled in the foliage so maybe I'll be in luck. As you can see, it features alabaster petals dramatically marked with chocolate spotting. Fabulous!

Many of you will recognize the bold colors of the following four photos. The one above, plus #3 and #4, are Sparaxis hybrids. They feature fabulous colors, especially yellows, oranges and reds, all with a central ring and differently colored centers. The odd man out below is a true species, S. grandiflora ssp grandiflora. I love its rich maroon colors. Sparaxis bloom during the same period as freesias, giving the gardener a riot of color to enjoy in late February/early March.

Here's a bulb I'd never heard of until a friend gave a pot of it to me. It's Melasphaerula ramosa and I swear it has the sweetest flowers. Very simple but plants produce an abundance of flowers. But if you find it be careful. It self seeds vigorously. 

Star of Bethlehem may not ring a bell as a flower reference but that's what the Ornithogalum genus is commonly called. The white and green flowering types are most common but there is also a glowing orange species, O. dubium. The above photo does somewhat manage to capture its sun drenched colors. Very vigorous, it can even be grown as a houseplant, so much so you will more likely find it being sold with other houseplants. 

Ixias, or Corn lilies as they're known, have entered people's radar more in recent years. They are commonly available in commercial packages and they are exceptionally easy to grow. They come in an endless array of colors. Above is the straight species I. monadelpha while the lower photo is a hybrid called 'Buttercup.' Lovely!

Another plant that has sadly disappeared in large measure from the market is Homoglad. It was a cross of Gladiolus tristas (the 'glad' ending) and Homoglossum watsonium (the Homo part). Though this photo isn't in perfect focus, I wanted to include a photo of one. The flowers are small, like the original Gladiolas from S. Africa, but the sensational colors and patterns more than make up for it.

Speaking of the original gladiolas that the common glads are derived from, here are two species types. Above is the delicate but gorgeous G. alatus and below is one simply identified as 'Lemon Moon.' I suspect it has some G. tristas in it. Once you accept the smaller size and almost non-existent leaves, the species gladiolas hailing from the Cape are just sensational.

Here's a sweet bulb that needs a better press agent! Anomatheca laxa is the coolest little customer, able to thrive in shade, and self-seed to its heart's content when happy. It's tough too. If it's dry it simply waits in the soil until the rains come and then it seems to sprout almost overnight. This member of the Iris family is a great low ground cover or adept at being an understory plant. 

Finally, here are two photos of Ledebouria socialis. Although the top photo isn't the best, I wanted to show its most attractive features, that being its spotted leaves and the glossy, above ground succulent-like bulb. Below is a photo of its tiny green and white flowers. Super easy to grow and not taking up much space, it is a wonderful accent plant that typically blooms in summer. 

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