Handsome, striking, unique, peculiar, these are the kind of words
that are used to describe this unusual plant. Eucomis autumnalis
is a deciduous, summer growing bulb. The bulbs are large (8-10cm
diameter), ovoid in shape, and give rise to a rosette of large,
broad, soft-textured, fleshy, wavy-edged leaves, about 12-35 cm
long x 60-75 cm wide. The inflorescence is a dense cylindrical raceme
on a stout stalk, crowded with up to ±125 starry yellowish-green
flowers with a tuft of leaf-like bracts at the tip. The inflorescence
pushes the overall height of the plant up to ±50-60 cm. Flowers
are produced in mid to late summer (December to February). After
pollination, whilst the seeds are developing inside the swelling
ovaries, the flowers turn green and the inflorescence remains decorative
into autumn. The fruit is a trilocular capsule containing shiny
black rounded seeds.
The name Eucomis is derived from the Greek eukomos
meaning beautifully haired, from the Greek eu- meaning well
and kome hair of the head, and refers to the tuft of leaf-like
bracts that crown the inflorescence. This same feature also gave
it its English and Afrikaans common names. The specific name autumnalis
refers to its flowering and fruiting time. It has acquired a number
of synonyms over the years, where variants were defined as separate
species but these are now regarded as part of the same species,
or where the same plant has been given different names by different
Eucomis autumnalis is divided into three subspecies, most
clearly distinguishable by the structure of the peduncle (stalk
of the inflorescence) which is either club-shaped or cylindrical:
Eucomis autumnalis subsp. autumnalis, (cylindrical)
syn. Fritillaria autumnalis, Eucomis undulata, which occurs
on mountain slopes, in open grassland and forest margins in the
Eastern Cape, Northern Province, Zimbabwe and Malawi; Eucomis autumnalis
subsp. clavata, (club-shaped or clavate) syn. Eucomis
robusta, E. clavata, which grows in open grassland and marshes
in KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, eastern Free State, Mpumalanga, Gauteng,
Northern Province North West Province and Botswana; and Eucomis
autumnalis subsp. amaryllidifolia, (linear leaves, club-shaped
peduncle) syn. Eucomis amaryllidifolia, which grows between
rocks on mountain slopes of the western Free State and Eastern Cape.
Eucomis is a member of the Hyacinthaceae (hyacinth family),
formerly part of the Liliaceae (lily family), a family of perennial
bulbous herbs consisting of ±46 genera and ±900 species
found in Africa, Eurasia and North America but most richly represented
in southern Africa and in the Mediterranean region to south west
Asia. Related species known to South African gardeners include Lachenalia
bracteata and Scilla
species more familiar to northern hemisphere gardeners include the
hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis and the bluebell, Hyacinthoides
non-scripta. The genus Eucomis consists of approximately
eleven species that occur in southern Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
There are approximately ten in southern Africa, that occur in all
eight provinces of South Africa, and in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland,
where they are found widespread in grassland, forest, swamps and
river banks but are absent from the drier areas.
Although the bulb is toxic, Eucomis autumnalis is used medicinally
in South Africa. Decoctions of the bulb in water or milk are usually
administered as enemas for the treatment of low backache, to assist
in post-operative recovery, and to aid in healing fractures. Decoctions
are also used for a variety of ailments, including urinary diseases,
stomach ache, fevers, colic, flatulence, hangovers and syphilis,
and to facilitate childbirth. The subspecies clavata is also
used for coughs and respiratory ailments, biliousness, lumbago,
blood disorders, venereal diseases and to prevent premature childbirth.
Several homoisoflavones are found in Eucomis autumnalis,
and flavonoids are known for their anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic
action. It also contains some steroidal triterpenoids and they are
known to be beneficial in wound therapy.
Growing Eucomis autumnalis
Eucomis autumnalis is a magnificent garden plant, well suited
to pockets in the rockery, it can also be used in groups in the
herbaceous border, in a wall border in cold climates, planted en
masse, and in large containers. The flowers look good for many weeks
in the garden, and last for a week or two in the vase. The fruiting
inflorescence is also decorative and can be kept for up to a month
in the vase.
autumnalis is not difficult to grow and once established does
not require much attention. Bulbs should be planted with their tops
at or just below ground level, in rich soil, in full sun or partial
sale. They will tolerate poor soil, but perform much better in fertile
soil. They benefit greatly from a generous application of well-rotted
compost every spring and ample water whilst in active growth during
spring and summer. Although dormant in winter, they will tolerate
winter irrigation, and winter rainfall, provided the soil is well
drained. They are frost hardy and should survive a winter minimum
of -7 C / 20 °F (zone 9), although in regions where frost is expected,
it is advisable to plant them in a sheltered position, in tight
clumps, in very well-drained soil, and to keep them as dry as possible
and to cover them with a thick protective mulch of leaves / straw
Propagation is by offsets, seed, leaf cuttings and tissue culture.
Seed is sown in spring, in deep (±10 cm) containers in a
well-drained seedling mix. Seed germinates readily in 4-6 weeks.
Young bulbs can be planted into the garden in their third year when
well-grown specimens may flower for the first time, although this
species can take 4 to 5 seasons to flower.
Offsets are produced rather slowly, and are best removed while the
plant is dormant in late autumn or winter, kept cool and dry and
planted in the spring.
Bulbs can also be produced by taking leaf cuttings. While the plant
is in active growth, an entire leaf can be removed and cut into
approx. 5cm sections, each one 'planted' in sterilised well-drained
potting soil and kept moist in a humid environment. Tiny bulbs should
form after a month or two.
Sterilised bulb scales, leaf bases or flower stalks can be used
in tissue culture.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.), 2000, Seed plants of southern Africa:
families and genera, Strelitzia 10., National Botanical Institute,
- Jackson, W.P.U., 1990, Origins and Meanings of Names of South
African Plant Genera, U.C.T. Printing Dept., Cape Town.
- Du Plessis, N., & Duncan, G., 1989, Bulbous Plants of Southern
Africa, A guide to their Cultivation and Propagation, Tafelberg,
- Reyneke, W.F. 1980. Three subspecies of Eucomis autumnalis.
Bothalia 13: 140-142
- Compton, J. 1990. Eucomis L'Heritier. The Plantsman 12(3) 128-139
- van Wyk, B.E., van Oudtshoorn, B., Gericke, N., 1997, Medicinal
Plants of South Africa, Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa