Babiana villosa is a spectacular red- or pink-flowered cormous plant endemic to the southwestern Cape. With sufficient care, it performs well in cultivation and is suited to deep containers, window boxes, raised beds and rock garden pockets.
This winter-growing, summer-dormant plant grows to 20 cm high. It has a deep-seated corm surrounded by several layers of fibrous outer tunics extended into a prominent neck. Its 5–6 lance-shaped, heavily pleated leaves are covered in short soft hairs and are arranged in a narrow or wide fan.
The flower stem has a dense covering of hairs and has one or two branches. The flowers have very narrow perianth tubes and are actinomorphic (divisible into equal halves in any plane) and the tepals vary in shades of light to deep red or pink and have prominent large black or deep purple anthers. Flowering takes place from late August to late September and the flowers only open fully on hot, still days.
The ripe fruit is a dry capsule which splits longitudinally, allowing dispersal of the numerous dark brown, irregularly angled seeds.
Babiana villosa has a conservation status of Near Threatened (NT). It has lost 80% of its habitat due to agricultural expansion for cereal crops, olive trees, deciduous fruit orchards and vineyards, and road verge clearing, and its numbers are continuing to decline. Currently most populations fall outside the boundaries of formal nature reserves and it survives mainly in fragmented pockets of renosterveld on privately owned farmland.
Distribution and habitat
Babiana villosa is endemic to the Fynbos Biome and occurs on flats, hills and lower mountain slopes from Malmesbury to Tulbagh, Wolseley and Wellington in the southwestern Cape. It has become rare at Malmesbury and is now most commonly found around Tulbagh and Wolseley in the Upper Breede River Valley. It grows in fertile, stony clay soils in Breede Shale Renosterveld vegetation, often in association with other spring-flowering geophytes including the red-flowered Geissorhiza erosa, the pink ground orchid Satyrium erectum and blue-flowered forms of Lachenalia unifolia .
The genus Babiana contains about 90 species and its centres of diversity are in Namaqualand and the southwestern Cape. These mainly spring-flowering, low-growing plants are confined to southern Africa, with the exception of Babiana bainesii that ranges into southern tropical Africa.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Babiana is derived from the Dutch baviaantje , meaning little baboon. The name alludes to observations made by early colonists at the Cape who noticed that the local Chacma baboons, the world's most southerly-occurring primates, were very partial to their corms. The British botanist J.B. Ker Gawler formally established the genus Babiana when he described B. plicata Ker Gawl. (now B. fragrans ), the type species, in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1802. Babiana villosa was described posthumously by the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander (1733-1782) as Ixia villosa in William Aiton's Hortus Kewensis, published in 1789. The specific name villosa is descriptive of the short soft hairs which clothe the leaf surfaces. Ker Gawler later transferred the species to Babiana in Curtis's Botanical Magazine in 1802.
Babianas have aroused the interest of gardeners and horticulturists for centuries and their popularity today continues mainly in the form of colourful hybrids, probably originating from crosses between Babiana angustifolia and B. stricta that are commonly grown in rock gardens in mild climates, and as container plants in colder parts. The cultivation of pure species is confined largely to the attentions of specialist collectors. The wide diversity in flower colour and the very different flower shapes encountered (actinomorphic to tubular to strongly zygomorphic) places the aesthetic appeal of the species well above that of commonly grown hybrids, but as is so often the case, maintaining pure species in cultivation over the long term poses a far greater challenge than keeping hybrids alive. Several Babiana species are additionally desirable for the grower in being strongly fragrant, such as the sweetly scented B. ambigua, B. nana and B. odorata , and the strongly clove-scented B. fragrans. Some other species highly recommended for cultivation include deep violet forms of B. angustifolia , the oversized, sulphur-yellow blooms of B. pygmaea and the bicoloured blue-and-red flowers of B. rubrocyanea .
The corms of Babiana species are usually deep-seated and often found wedged between crevices of boulders—a strategy evolved to obstruct access by an array of animals which feed on the tasty corms including Chacma baboons, moles and porcupines. Those of B. villosa are also difficult to access as they are habitually found wedged between stones in heavy clay soils, which bake rock hard in summer. The corms commence active growth in autumn, grow rapidly through the winter months and bloom in spring . At the beginning of summer the ripe seeds are shed close to the mother plants from dry capsules as a result of the shaking action of wind, and lie dormant until rain falls the following autumn.
The flowers of Babiana villosa are unscented and pollinated by several species of monkey beetle which feed on the pollen, including Lepithrix ornatella, a small dark brown and yellow beetle with strong hind legs, which I have often seen on red-flowered forms of B. villosa near Tulbagh.
Uses and cultural aspects
Babiana villosa has no medicinal or magical uses but the corms of B. bainesii are known to have been eaten by indigenous peoples in the northern parts of South Africa. In ornamental horticulture, B. villosa is used to a limited extent by specialist bulb growers as a container or rock garden plant.
Growing Babiana villosa
Babiana villosa adapts well to cultivation and is easily grown outdoors in temperate climates in rock garden pockets, raised beds and window boxes. Its dwarf nature also lends it to cultivation in deep containers with a diameter of 25–30 cm, and in areas where winter temperatures drop to freezing, it has to be grown in the cool greenhouse in a position receiving bright light for as much of the day as possible.
Plant the corms 3 cm deep in autumn in a sharply drained, gritty medium such as three parts coarse river sand and one part finely milled bark or potting compost. Water the plants heavily after planting and not again until the leaf shoots appear, then water heavily once per week during the winter growing period and do not allow the soil to dry out excessively over this time as this results in the plants aborting the developing inflorescences and entering dormancy prematurely. During the summer dormant period, keep the corms as dry as possible.
This species readily sets seed following hand pollination of flowers amongst different plants. It also multiplies by corm offsets of the mother corm, and by cormlets produced in the leaf axils in the subterranean part of the stem, the cormlets often concealed within the fibrous outer tunics of the corm neck. Sow the seeds in autumn in the same medium recommended for adult corms and keep moist by watering with a fine rose-cap. Fresh seeds germinate readily within four to five weeks and seedlings usually flower for the first time in their third season, in ideal conditions.
The corms and leaf bases are susceptible to mealy bug infestation, especially in late autumn and early winter. The foliage is subject to attack by rust fungi and Fusarium fungal dry rot in winter in insufficiently well ventilated environments, and is also susceptible to infection with a mosaic virus. In late spring, the leaves may be attacked by red spider mites as temperatures rise. In insufficiently well-drained media, the corms are attacked by the Fusarium fungus, seen as reddish lesions.
References and further reading
- Duncan, G.D. 1982. Ten Babiana species for promotion. Veld & Flora 68: 47–48.
- Duncan, G.D. 2007. Babiana blanda . Curtis's Botanical Magazine 24: 230–236.
- Duncan, G.D. 2010. Grow bulbs . Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Du Plessis, N.M. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa . Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2007. A revision of southern African genus Babiana , Iridaceae: Crocoideae. Strelitzia 18. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria and Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri.
- Jeppe, B.J. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Spring and winter flowering bulbs of the Cape . Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
- Mucina, L. & Rutherford, M.C. 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Raimondo, D. & Manning, J. 2008. National Assessment Red List of South African Plants version 2013.1. Accessed on 2020/07/01.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden