One of the first spring bulbs to flower in our garden this year is the hybrid Lachenalia ‘Rosabeth’ with its curiously spotted stem and leaves, and cheerful red and green tubular flowers.
This is the first time I have attempted to grow these fascinating little indigenous bulbs – of which there are no less than 133 known species concentrated mainly in the Western Cape – varying in colour from bright shades of purple, red, orange and yellow to pastel shades of mauve, pink, white and blue. I first encountered them during the Capetonian’s annual pilgrimage to ‘See the flowers’. Living in Cape Town made it so easy to nick out for a day’s picnic up the west coast; or a weekend camping in the Cedarberg; or a few days longer if one wanted to see the flowers round Kamieskroon or Springbok. Amongst the carpets of purple, white, orange and yellow arctotis and gazania, is a wide range of interesting bulbs, dwarf shrubs and succulents – to be seen only if one gets out of the car and wanders in the veld. In 1776 an early botanical traveller, Francis Masson, sent to the Cape to collect plants for Kew Gardens, sums up his impression by describing the countryside as ‘being enamelled with the greatest number of flowers I ever saw, of exquisite beauty and fragrance.’
Lachenalia grow in seemingly inhospitable sandy and rocky areas, and yet more than 50 species are now endangered or vulnerable because their habitat has been destroyed for agriculture or urban development. Their Afrikaans name is viooltjie, not because they look like little violins or violets, but apparently because of the squeaking sound produced by rubbing two flower stalks together! Who discovered that during a long hot Sunday afternoon when there was clearly nothing else to do?!
Early records of Lachenalia date back to the late 17th century and they have been popular with specialist bulb growers throughout the world for over 100 years. They are named after a Swiss professor of botany, Werner de Lachenal (1739-1800), and in Europe and America are often called Cape cowslips, in spite of bearing no resemblance to the wild British cowslip!
I chose to follow the planting advice of the late Kristo Pienaar, expert on indigenous plants and former professor of botany at the University of the Western Cape, who recommended planting the bulbs in a container – as they need full sun, good drainage and a dry dormant period – and am delighted with the results. Fourteen bulbs emerged together and very soon started producing flowering spikes – some of which seem to grow several millimetres each day. They also do well in sunny rockeries as long as they are not watered in summer.
Graham Duncan, curator of the Bulbous Plants Living Collection at Kirstenbosch Gardens, has written a wonderful sounding comprehensive account of The Genus Lachenalia published by Kew in 2012 – including everything one could possibly wish to know about these little bulbs. If anyone out there is lucky enough to own a copy – please let me know.
Text: Leonie Twentyman-Jones
Photographs: Margaret Richards