The bushy bulbine, Bulbine abyssinica, is a hardy, water-wise plant that offers a brilliant yellow display when in flower. Inflorescences with both flowers and fruit have an attractive bicoloured (yellow and black) appearance.
Bulbine abyssinica is a succulent, perennial herb which grows in small clusters. The soft, dark green leaves are erect or arching, linear, grass-like and up to 350 mm long. Several dense, many-flowered, spike-like inflorescences are formed from a cluster of plants during spring. The inflorescence lengthens as the flowers open and can become up to 0.8 m tall. The bright yellow flowers are star-shaped with bearded stamens and mature from the bottom of the inflorescence, with about ten flowers open at a time. The stalks of the old flowers and fruit are straight and project at almost right angles from the central axis of the inflorescence. Mature fruits are black, ± 4 mm in diameter and often covered with the faded perianth (flower petals) persisting as a cap.
Bulbine abyssinica is not threatened and can be very common in certain areas throughout its wide distribution range. It often forms large stands and is very conspicuous during the flowering season.
Distribution and habitat
Bulbine abyssinica occurs from the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Lesotho, Free State, North-West, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and further north to Ethiopia. It favours rocky grassland and shallow soil overlying rock, but can also be found in woodland and along seepage areas. It frequently forms small colonies.
Owing to its wide distribution, this species is suitable for cultivation throughout the summer rainfall region. It is both frost and drought tolerant and can cope with a wide range of temperatures. In dry, hot years, plants tend to be smaller and have fewer inflorescences than in years of good rainfall.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The specific epithet of this species, abyssinica, refers to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) where this species was originally discovered.
The genus Bulbine comprises ± 73 species occurring in Africa and Australia. Whereas only six species are found in Australia, a total of 67 occur in southern Africa, with only five of these also extending into tropical Africa. The genus is therefore essentially a southern African entity. The genus is characterized by succulent plants with lax or compound racemes (flowers borne on stalks along an unbranched axis, lower ones opening first) of mostly yellow (rarely white, orange or pink) flowers with bearded stamens.
The most common Bulbine found in the horticultural trade is both the yellow and orange colour forms of B. frutescens. Several other species are also worthy of cultivation, for instance B. latiflolia, B. narcissifolia, B. natalensis and of course, B. abyssinica.
This species is insect pollinated and is frequently visited by bees.
Uses and cultural aspects
Bulbine abyssinica is often used in traditional medicine to treat dysentery, bilharzia and cracked lips.
Growing Bulbine abyssinica
Bulbine abyssinica can be used very effectively as either an accent plant in a small bed or as a mass display in a large bed. The species is rather fast growing and easily forms large clumps. Its drought resistance makes it ideal for water-wise gardening. Although it mostly flowers during spring in its natural habitat, it has an extended flowering period in cultivation and can flower almost year round under suitable conditions. A large clump can produce up to 20 inflorescences simultaneously, offering an impressive display. Even when not in flower, the plants are very attractive.
For the best effect, plant this species in full sun together with other hardy, drought tolerant plants. Although B. abyssinica can tolerate regular watering, it does not require it. A good humus-rich soil will ensure healthy plants that grow fast and flower proliferously. Mulch regularly or cover the bed with pebbles. This will prevent unnecessary water loss from the soil and thus contribute to the principles of water-wise gardening.
Propagation is either vegetative or through seed. Plants are self-incompatible and therefore no seed will be formed when only one clone is present. When clumps become very large, they can be divided and replanted, preferably in early spring. Seed can be sown throughout the year, but spring or early summer is the best time to do so. This will give the seedlings ample time to establish before winter. Seeds germinate rapidly, usually within one to two weeks. Seedlings grow fast and can be transplanted when they are at an easily manageable size. Plants often flower within their first year.
References and further reading
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Natal Flora Trust Publications, Durban.
- Smith, G.F. & Meyer, N.L. 2000. Asphodelaceae. In O.A. Leistner, Seed plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10: 582-586. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Watson, E.M. 1987. Bulbine. Flora of Australia 45: 236-241.
Ronell R Klopper
National Herbarium, Pretoria