The striking yellow and orange flowers with variable bold markings, and its extreme ease of cultivation make this elegant spring-flowering species an essential member of any collection of Cape geophytes.
Moraea elegans is a winter-growing, summer-dormant geophyte (a plant that grows from subterranean buds produced on specialized storage organs). In M. elegans the storage organ is a well-developed corm that is annually replaced and consists of a short, solid, vertical stem surrounded by strong outer corm tunics. The mature plant grows up to 0.35 m high and produces a single long, linear, greenish grey basal leaf up to 0.5 m long.
The large, shallowly cup-shaped flowers are rather variable in their colour combinations and have oblong, bright orange or yellow outer tepals, each with a prominent bright green or brownish green, spade-like marking in the centre or towards the base, and bright yellow, narrower, oblong inner tepals that are usually unmarked. The flowers are scented and produced in succession, each one lasting three days. The three anthers are positioned on the undersides of the three-lobed style branches, and the pollen is bright yellow. The erect, oblong-shaped seed capsules split open from the top downwards, liberating large quantities of hard, dark brown, angular seeds.
Moraea elegans is an endangered species due to ploughing of its fertile natural habitat for the purposes of winter cereal crops, especially wheat; currently it survives in just a few scattered remnant populations.
Distribution and habitat
Moraea elegans has an extremely limited distribution in renosterveld vegetation in the southwestern part of the Western Cape, extending from Caledon to Napier. It grows in colonies on lower hill slopes and flats in seasonally moist, heavy clay soil. It is easily cultivated in temperate climates but is sensitive to prolonged cold or frost, requiring the protection of the cool greenhouse in cold climates.
Derivation of name and historical background
The colourful inner and outer tepals of Moraea elegans are particularly elegant, hence the species name elegans, derived from Latin.
Moraea elegans was originally named and illustrated in Vienna in 1797 by the chemist, botanist and plant collector, Baron Nikolaus Joseph Jacquin, in vol. 1 of his magnificent work Plantarum rariorum horti caesarei Schöenbrunnensis descriptions et icones. The plant was later placed in the genus Homeria as H. elegans, but has subsequently been returned to its original name, Moraea elegans.
The genus Moraea contains some 200 species and is widely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa, with outliers in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Its area of highest diversity is in the winter rainfall zone of the Western Cape.
Uses and cultural aspects
The corms of at least one Moraea species ( M. fugax, formerly known as M. edulis ) are known to have been eaten by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa. The corms of M. elegans are not known to have been consumed by humans, and could possibly be poisonous. The corms of several other Moraea species are known to be poisonous to livestock, including M. flaccida, M. miniata and M. ochroleuca.
The flowers of Moraea elegans are sweet-scented and are probably pollinated by flies; however, in the Kirstenbosch nursery they have been seen to be regularly visited by honey bees.
Growing Moraea elegans
Moraea elegans has been successfully cultivated at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden for many years and its seeds are regularly available to South African members of the Botanical Society of South Africa.
Although endangered in its natural habitat, Moraea elegans is an easily cultivated plant. The corms are planted in autumn at a depth of about 3 cm in a freely draining medium such as equal parts of river sand and finely sifted, well-decomposed compost. The plants like a very sunny aspect and are most successfully cultivated under cover in deep bulb beds or deep plastic containers with a diameter of 30 cm. In temperate climates they can also be grown in rock garden pockets that are securely lined with wire mesh to exclude moles. In cold climates of the northern hemisphere, they are suited to cultivation in the cool greenhouse and must receive bright light for as much of the day as possible. Regular heavy drenching of the growing medium is required during winter and spring, but the corms must be kept completely dry throughout the summer dormant phase.
This species is easily raised from fresh seeds (those harvested during the previous summer season) sown in late autumn in deep seed trays, pots or directly into deep seed beds, in the same medium recommended for mature corms. Seeds should be sown at a depth of 3-4 mm and care should be taken not to sow too thickly to prevent overcrowding and reduce the risk of loss to damping-off fungi. Germination takes place within four to five weeks and seedlings should be allowed to grow undisturbed for two seasons before planting out into permanent positions at the beginning of their third season, during which they will flower for the first time, if well grown.
In the southern hemisphere the flowering period extends from mid August to late September. The flowers open fully on warm, still days but remain partially closed in cold, cloudy weather. The individual blooms are rather short-lived, each flower lasting only three days, but a succession of blooms is produced by the same plant over a three to four week period.
Moraea elegans is not especially susceptible to pests and diseases although the leaves are eaten by slugs and snails and the undersides of the leaves can fall prey to attack by red spider mites as temperatures rise in late spring. Fungal rotting of the corms occurs when they have not been dried out sufficiently during the summer months.
References and further reading
- Brown, N.A.C. & Duncan, G.D. 2006. Grow fynbos plants. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Du Plessis, N.M. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa, a guide to their cultivation and propagation. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Goldblatt, P. 1981. Systematics and biology of Homeria (Iridaceae). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 68: 413-503.
- Jeppe, B.J. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Spring and winter flowering bulbs of the Cape. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
- Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G. 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburgh.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden