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Cornucopia - South African Bulbous Plants

South African Bulbous Plants
Roger Stuckey

Many of us like growing bulbous plants and it is surprising to find that many of the bulbs we grow not only come from southern Africa but are hardy here in the West Country. Hardiness is a relative term - the rest of the country think that we in Devon live in a balmy sub-tropical atmosphere, but try saying that to those who live on Dartmoor who get snow nearly every year. Exmouth and other Devon south coast towns may have a mild climate, but within 20 miles, areas had over 30cm of snow this winter, while in Exmouth I had 1mm in my garden. What will survive here easily may not in colder parts of the county. In Exmouth we rarely get a frost in April and often not before November, so our growing season is much longer than those whose last frost is in late May or June and first one starts again in September. Most of our frosts have gone by midday.

If you are really interested in South African bulbs, get the Silverhill seed catalogue. This lists incredible numbers of seeds of plants from South Africa, not just bulbs but trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, succulents, etc. Their catalogue is a revelation.

Contact: Silverhill Seeds PO Box 53108 Kenilworth 7745 Cape Town South Africa Tel: +27 21 797 6609 www.silverhillseeds.co.za E-mail: info@silverhillseeds.co.za.

One of the big advantages is that they take cheques in sterling. So let’s start with some of those African bulbs that most people are able to grow reasonably comfortably outdoors. I suppose the obvious one is the gladiolus. Produced and sold in their thousands, the cormous gladiolus is one of the mainstays of the many Autumn shows and flower arrangements, and can be found in a wide variety of colours. They are reasonably hardy if left outside throughout the winter, especially if planted slightly deeper than the recommended depth and mulched. But there are other gladioli which are worth growing, not just the big Dutch-supplied forms. Try Gladiolus papilio, at 1 metre a rather weird looking mauvish flowered plant not easily recognised as a gladiolus (there is now a lovely red form of this called G. p. 'Ruby'). There is one, Gladiolus uysiae, that grows to 20cm (8") and even one, Gladiolus watermeyeri, that can flower at 10cm (4").

Nerine is another bulb which is a common sight in our gardens late in the year, even to October/November. Planted with its nose just at soil level, Nerine bowdenii, the hardiest variety, makes a wonderful exotic sight when often little else is making a show. In Exmouth we even have the deep red N. sarniensis surviving outside and the white forms of N. bowdenii and N. flexuosa.

Because my interest is particularly directed at all things miniature, I delight in bulbs like Albuca humilis. Flowering at about 10cm, it has survived for many years in a trough, reliably flowering with its white green striped buds opening white. Last winter - no problem! Up it came in the Spring this year as usual.

Another dwarf plant which survives and thrives outdoors is the Rhodohypoxis in its many forms, both single and double. In a trough and in the open garden, these are reliable, each year poking through later than those in pots which have the protection of the glasshouse, but still making a good show with their red, pink and white flowers. I have not tried the yellow Hypoxis hygrometrica and H. hirsuta outside yet, but will do so when I have a good enough stock.

Agapanthus is another plant considered hardy on the South Devon coast but again I like the smaller forms such as A. 'Thumbelina', 'Tinkerbell', 'Double Diamond' and 'Peter Pan', all bought from the agapanthus specialist, Dick Fulcher of Pine Cottage Plants at Eggesford. All these have survived outside in pots, albeit under the protection of netting.

Anomatheca laxa, which in the past has hovered uneasily between Anomatheca and Lapeirousia but which has now settled in Anomatheca, is another dwarfish corm flowering at about 20cm in a range of colours, mainly red and white and any combination in between, including bicolors. Perfectly hardy here in the open garden and troughs, and with ample large orange seeds soon making little colonies.

Chasmanthe is also hardy here outdoors, but I do not find this such a spectacular plant as the many forms of Crocosmia which are also hardy. Schizostylis coccinea in all its colour forms is another easy plant to grow outside. Superficially resembling a gladiolus, it adds colour to the border later in the year, with colours between white and red.

Eucomis I find reasonably hardy. I grow E. comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy' outside, being rewarded with its 60cm high spikes of dark flowers matching the reddish foliage while the others, E. bicolor and the smaller E. zambesiaca 'White Dwarf', also take their chances outside in pots. I have the strikingly leaf marked dwarf E. vandermerwei in the unheated glasshouse, and the tall E. pole-evansii outside.

Galtonia candicans is a tall white flowered bulb and at 90cm is a good plant for the mixed border. The green flowered G. viridiflora is another attraction.

One plant which is comparatively easy nearly everywhere is the Dierama. Again there are tall forms such as D. pulcherrimum at 150cm and dwarf forms such D. trichorhizum at 40cm. The main colour is pink, but white to dark magenta forms are found. Preferring a moist situation, especially near ponds which gives rise to its common name of Fairies’ Fishing Rods, it dangles its flowers on top of the stems and sets lots of seed.

A plant I would never be without is Ixia, the African Corn Lily. Cheap to buy and flowering in a multitude of colours at about 50cm, the stems are very narrow and so the corms are best planted under a dwarf shrub. This will not only protect them from frost but as the stems grow up through the branches, they will be supported, as the size of the flowering head is out of proportion to the stem.

I've never been that keen on Kniphofia, probably because most tend to be rather too large for my garden, although there are some smaller ones to 50cm. The Moraea I love but have been singularly unable to succeed with them. They germinate well but seem to die on me afterwards, despite (or because of) too much TLC (tender loving care).

Ornithogalum are the opposite. Germination is good and despite some neglect, they seem to flourish. Ornithogalum dubium in a range of colours (white, yellow, orange) is one of my favourites, perhaps less than hardy, although I did leave some bulbs of O. longibracteatum outside last winter in pots under netting and these survived. It is called the ‘Pregnant Onion’, due to the fact that the huge bulb grows up to 12cm across and has its ‘babies’ under the outer skin half way up the bulb.

I love the bright flowered Sparaxis tricolor. Easy to grow outdoors with me, they brighten the early summer with their spectacular red/orange/yellow star-shaped flowers with central markings.

I also like that oddity, Haemanthus albiflos, with usually two flat slab-like leaves and 10cm stems on which perch a boss of white stamens, looking altogether like a man’s shaving brush. There is a red Haemanthus, although this is more ball shaped, as is the similar Scadoxus. With leaves resembling an Haemanthus and with similar flowers, Massonia is a plant I really like, not just for the fact that it is Winter flowering but that the flower, again just a mass of stamens, is completely stemless. The leaves of some are covered with pustule-like marks. All the above I have never tried outside, but they do survive in an unheated glasshouse which lets a degree or so of frost to penetrate.

I’ll finish this article with Watsonia. Rarely seen up to about 5 years ago, they are gradually being introduced into garden centres. From seed I have grown W. pillansii, angusta, wilmaniae and humilis, and await their flowering with impatience. Watsonia densiflora and the tall W. meriania grow outside comfortably.

There is a rich abundance of bulbous plants in South Africa and I have only touched on a few of the averagely hardy that I grow. I cultivate others, some hardy and others not really hardy, like Babiana, Clivia, Cyrtanthus, Gloriosa, Hesperantha, Lachenalia, etc., etc., which fill the glasshouses with colour in due season. South African bulbs are definitely worth growing and as most of us have a glasshouse, why not try your hand at SA bulbs to go alongside your narcissi and tulips.

First published in the Devon Group Newsletter, June/July 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 26.
© Copyright for this article: Roger Stuckey

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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