Our Glorious Cape Bulbs

The Cape Floral Kingdom is the most prodigious in its wealth of bulbous plants. Among the more important reasons for the wealth of the Cape bulb flora may be the relatively mild winter temperatures and predictable rains that characterize the climate.

Brunsvigia bosmaniae
Brunsvigia bosmaniae

Bulbs from the Cape of Good Hope were first introduced into horticulture in Europe as early as the 17th century.  Early explorers collected species for botanical gardens and also for the hothouses of the nobility and gentry of Europe. The remarkable flora at the Cape has been known to European botanists and horticulturists for nearly four centuries.

Haemanthus coccineus
Haemanthus coccineus

Cape bulbs had impressed European growers even before the establishment of a port at Cape Town.  Among the very first plants to reach Europe were bulbs of Haemanthus coccineus.

Today’s selection of cultivated bulbous plants are mostly hybrids produced by plant breeders. All the most famous Cape bulbs – gladiolus, freesia, amaryllis, sparaxis and chincherinchee are bred entirely from Cape stock.



As a rule, Cape bulbs need well-drained soil because the fleshy organs are prone to rotting when waterlogged, especially when they are in a dormant stage.  Planting should be done in autumn, late March to April. Members of the Amaryllis family should not be disturbed once they have become established.  If it is necessary to transplant them, do so immediately after new leaves appear while the bulbs are in active growth. Most liquid fertilizers are adequate but should be low in nitrogen.  Fertilize once or twice in the growing season only.

Like most plants in cultivation, bulbs are susceptible to infestations of mealy bugs.  These pests  will transfer viral infections between plants. There are chemical insecticides available to combat these pests, but rather go the ‘natural’ way of dealing with the problem. Use short-lived natural insecticide that does not persist in the environment.

Dishwashing Liquid: For larger infestations, try spraying with a mixture of dishwashing liquid and water. Use equal parts of each and stir to mix rather than shaking to avoid excess foam. Spray all infected areas. The soap coats the mealy bugs and effectively suffocates them. It also breaks down their protective waxy layer. You can rub the leaves with a soft cloth after spraying to remove the bugs, or leave the solution overnight and then attack the weakened bugs with a strong jet of water.

Rubbing alcohol: sport treat areas of mealy bug infection with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol – simply dab the critters and rub them away.

Contributor: Esther Townsend