Garden Surprises

Eucomis vandermerwei
Eucomis vandermerwei

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones

Photo: Margaret Richards

It is amazing how gardens always have the ability to surprise – plants appear that one has no recollection of acquiring or planting. Of course birds often bring new and interesting additions to the garden. But how a small threatened alpine bulb which occurs in the wild in western Mpumalanga arrived in our Leisure Isle garden is a complete mystery.

Several little bulbs with strange maroon-spotted leaves were discovered when clearing a bed a year or so ago and were put into a pot in the potting shed and rather forgotten. This summer the leaves grew a bit and we started watering it more frequently. Then, to our surprise, it started producing an unusual maroon flower with a topknot like a pineapple.

So, after a hunt on the internet, we discovered that it is the Spotted-leaf eucomis (Eucomis vandermerwei) with a conservation status of Vulnerable. It is under threat because of habitat loss, overgrazing and trampling by livestock, as well as smothering by invasive aliens. The bulbs are eaten by dassies and rodents and collected by local inhabitants for medicinal purposes. So maybe its best hope of survival is to move to the Western Cape?! The plant is named after Dr Frederick Ziervogel van der Merwe, an amateur botanist who first collected it in 1937 in the Middelburg district of western Mpumalanga. Eucomis is derived from the Greek eu and komos, meaning ‘beautifully haired’ – a reference to the topknot above the flower. The larger species of Pineapple flower (Eucomis autumnalis) which grows wild in the Eastern Cape is more familiar to us as it is found in several Knysna gardens and in the Steenbok Nature Reserve.

Eucomis vandermerwei is a member of the Hyacinth family and grows in a summer rainfall area, being dormant in winter. It likes morning sun and afternoon shade and in the Western Cape is best grown in pots so that it can be moved to dry areas during winter (presuming we get some rain). It should be watered until the leaves start to turn yellow in autumn, and then kept fairly dry until the following early summer. It is generally pest- and disease-free and its flowers are long-lasting from December to February – an interesting addition to a rock garden or as a container plant.