Dierama reynoldsii

Family : Iridaceae
Common names : this species does not appear to have a common name of its own, but the genus Dierama is known as hairbells, fairybells, wandflowers ( Eng. ); grasklokkies (Afr.)

Dierama reynoldsii

Just imagine the impact of a 'bulb' with flowers the colour of red wine (a young Shiraz , in particular), arising from bracts like the silver stem of a miniature goblet. Surely that would take the gardening fraternity by storm.

Flowers with their silvery bractsAnnual above-ground parts arise from a perennial underground corm some 25-30 mm in diameter; this is invariably solitary. A rather sparse tuft of strap-like leaves 0.5-1 m long and 4-6 mm wide is produced each spring (September in the southern hemisphere). The main flower stalk may be up to 2 m tall, with several spikes of flowers branching off it. Each spike may be up to 150 mm long, with up to 12 flowers crowded near the tip. Flowers deep magenta-purple, 20-30 mm long, goblet-shaped, arising from a silvery, papery bract. The fruit is a small round capsule, and the seeds are round to angled and brown.

This species is not on the SANBI list of threatened plants, and so one may deduce that at present it is not facing any major threat. The closely related D. dubium , is considered rare, though its status has not recently been formally evaluated.

Distribution and Habitat
Dierama reynoldsii grows in medium- to high-altitude grassland in the Eastern Cape (former Transkei ) and KwaZulu-Natal . The photographs illustrating this page were taken near Mapumulo, KwaZulu-Natal in October 2004. Records from the areas around Kokstad, Matatiele and Maclear suggest that this species will withstand severe cold (Mooi River, another known locality of this species, frequently records winter night-time minima of about -15°C), and its presence near Mapumulo suggests that different strains may thrive in warm, indeed hot, summers. The range of the species is an area characterized by relatively high rainfall (up to 1 000 mm. p.a. or even a little more), with a summer maximum, but some rain (or sometimes snow) in winter as well. The soil surrounding the plants in the photos was loamy, with plentiful organic matter.

Growing near Mapumulo

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Remarkably for such an attractive genus, Dierama was first cultivated in Europe as recently as 1825, by a private grower in London . Hilliard & Burtt (1991) surmise, probably correctly, that the high probability that field-collected corms would have been damaged in removal, and the long sea voyage, would have made the chances of these plants' survival en route before then distinctly poor. The generic name is derived from the Greek word dierama, meaning a funnel; the flowers are more-or-less funnel-shaped.

The specific epithet honours Dr G.W. Reynolds (1895-1967), who was an optician, and studied and cultivated plants, mostly aloes, in his spare time. In the course of gathering material for his two classic volumes (Reynolds 1950, 1966), he travelled some 40 000 km and collected numerous plants in addition to his aloe specimens; this dierama is one.

Hilliard & Burtt (1991) recognize 44 species, ranging from the Eastern Cape to Ethiopia , in the latest account of Dierama. No fewer than 26 of these are found in KwaZulu-Natal , which is the centre of diversity of the genus. D. reynoldsii is most similar to D. dubium, which comes from an area to the east and north of the range of our species, and has smaller flowers. In the area where D. reynoldsii is found, one may also encounter the rather similar D. latifolium, which is mainly distinguished by having corms in clumps (not solitary), and wider leaves. One species of this genus, D. pendulum, is widely grown in gardens; it has pale pink flowers.

Most aspects of the ecology of this plant are unknown. One would expect it to be pollinated by birds rather than insects, as it is doubtful if an insect would be able to see a flower that colour. However, as mammals (including humans) do not see in the ultra-violet, it is possible that the flower has markings that would show up in that part of the spectrum and so make it visible to insects. The growth strategy of perennial underground parts giving rise to annual leaves and flowers is very common in grasslands, and is a well-tried way of coping with both long, dry (or cold) seasons and fire. Most grass fires have almost no effect on temperatures under a few (often surprisingly few) centimetres of soil, and so the corms of this species will be well insulated against fires that would burn away all the above-ground parts. The appearance of the capsules and seeds suggests that they are adapted to ensure that the seeds do not stray too far from the parent plant. However, there is no information on this, specific to this plant.

Uses and cultural aspects
Likewise, this plant has no known traditional uses. Although not a common feature of nursery stock, it would make a valuable addition to southern African horticulture.

Growing Dierama reynoldsii

Although the list of suppliers appended to Hilliard & Burtt's book is now 15 years old and so to some extent outdated, it may still serve as a first suggestion of sources of material. D. reynoldsii is far from the commonest species in cultivation, and it should come as no surprise if surviving nurseries on that list are unable to supply the species treated here. Some years ago the author attended a conference in Edinburgh (Scotland), and was pleased to note that the most common bedding plant on the University campus that year was Dierama- not D. reynoldsii but a much paler-flowered plant, presumably a selection or hybrid involving D. pendulum . Although undeniably attractive, mass plantings of Dierama are probably not the best way of using these plants. A few individuals in a semblance of their natural habitat (arching over a pool for some species, in the wilder fringes of a lawn for D. reynoldsii ) would be far more impressive.

This species will need warm, wet summers, cool to cold, moist winters and an adequate supply of organic nutrients. Although it would probably cope well with the temperatures in Gauteng ( South Africa 's main population centre), it would need more water, especially in winter, than the climate there supplies. However, the plant to which this name was first applied was grown in Dr Reynolds's garden in Northcliff, Johannesburg, for some years before the name D. reynoldsii was published.

It does not appear that anyone has recorded anything about cultivating this plant since Reynolds's specimen of over 60 years ago. Propagating these plants by offsets is clearly not practical, as one of the defining characters of this species is its solitary growth. Propagation by seed should be possible, but one would expect that, as with some other corms of similar areas, the expectations raised by good and easy germination may be frustrated by the damping off of most of the seedlings shortly after they are planted out.

For the same reason, pests and diseases of this species are largely unknown, but may be expected to include thrips and their ilk, moles and fungi of various kinds. Thrips are controlled to a greater of lesser extent by various insecticides, and information on these is readily available from any competent garden centre. . Any fungi found on this species will almost certainly be new to science (95% of southern African microfungi are undescribed).

References and further reading
  • Hilliard, O.M. & Burtt, B.L. 1991. Dierama: the hairbells of Africa . Acorn Books, Johannesburg.
  • Pooley, E.S. 1998. A field guide to the wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region . Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban .
  • Reynolds, G.W. 1950. The aloes of South Africa . Aloes Publication Trust, Johannesburg .
  • Reynolds, G.W. 1966. The aloes of tropical Africa . Mbabane , Swaziland.

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Hugh Glen
KwaZulu-Natal Herbarium
June 2005



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