Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones.
Photographs: Margaret Richards
One of the most delightful spring-flowering shrubs is the Mackaya bella or Forest Bell bush. It is evergreen and has beautiful white bell-like flowers with fine mauve veins. The plant grows naturally in the margins of mountain forests, often along the edges of streams, from the Eastern Cape through KwaZulu Natal to the Northern Province and Swaziland. It is fast growing and looks gorgeous in a pot or in the ground in semi-shade – so would be an ideal choice for those of you who are re-establishing your gardens. It can be allowed to grow into a small tree or, if pruned often, will grow into a bushy shrub. It prefers light fertile well-drained soil, and as it is a forest-growing plant, loves lots of leaf-mould and humus.
The shrub is adapted to low light conditions so the flowers have ‘landing-lights’ which guide their pollinators – the large carpenter bee – to the nectar supply. These are amazing patterns in the throat of the flower which are only visible to the human eye under ultra-violet light. The larvae of the lovely Blue Pansy butterfly feed on the Mackaya bella’s leaves. These larvae also feed on the Creeping foxglove (Asystasia gangetica), (seen in the photo), whose flowers resemble a smaller version of those of the Mackaya bella. Interestingly the genus Mackaya was once included in the genus Asystasia.
The plant was first sent to the Kew Botanical Gardens in 1858 by John Sanderson, a plant collector in Natal, who found the shrub with ‘one mass of the most delicate, pendant, pale-lilac, campanulate flowers’ growing in the bed of a stream at Kruisfontein, Tongaat. In 1859 it was botanically described and named by the distinguished Irish botanist, William Henry Harvey, previously Colonial Treasurer at the Cape between 1835 and 1841, in his Thesaurus Capensis.
Harvey had become intensely interested in South African flora during his time at the Cape, and continued this interest when he was appointed Professor of Botany at Trinity College, Dublin. However, the name Harvey chose for this new plant has no connection with South Africa, but was named in honour of his great friend, James Townsend Mackay, a Scottish botanist who, for nearly 60 years, was the curator of the Trinity College Botanic Gardens in Dublin, and made a valuable contribution to the study of Irish botany in his Flora Hibernica. Harvey comments that he trusts that this beautiful shrub – indeed deserving of the description bella – ‘may before long be introduced to English gardens.’
It flowered in the iconic Palm House of Kew Botanical Gardens, built to provide a home for tropical plants, in May 1869 and was featured in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine that October along with a beautiful chromolithograph by the talented botanical artist Walter Fitch.