Tritonia crocata is a striking, late spring and early summer-flowering plant with fiery orange or reddish orange flower sprays and a fan of short, lance-shaped leaves. It is free-flowering, makes an ideal container and rock garden subject, and multiplies rapidly.
Tritonia crocata is a deciduous, winter-growing geophyte (a plant with a subterranean storage organ) up to 350 mm high. It has a flattened corm surrounded by a few layers of fibrous outer tunics and multiplies by cormlets produced around its base. It produces a fan of short, lance-shaped leaves in autumn and a spike of numerous bright fiery orange or reddish orange, almost regular, cup-shaped flowers in late spring and early summer (September to November). The three lower tepals of the flower have a narrow yellow or dark red central stripe in the throat, and all the tepals have attractive narrow translucent zones or 'windows' on the margins. The ripe fruit is a small brown capsule that ruptures lengthwise from top to bottom, releasing numerous small, hard, angled brown seeds.
Tritonia crocata is a protected plant. Its habitat is being threatened to a certain extent by the construction of houses along the southern Cape coast, but it is not currently regarded as threatened.
Distribution and habitat
Tritonia consists of 27 species and is concentrated in the southern part of the Western Cape. The genus is represented in all nine provinces of South Africa as well as in Lesotho and Swaziland, and its distribution extends northwards almost to the equator in Tanzania in Central East Africa. Tritonia crocata grows in clay soils in renosterveld of the southern part of the Western Cape, extending from Swellendam and George in the west to Humansdorp in the east. It is well suited to cultivation in temperate climates but is not resistant to prolonged periods of frost.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Tritonia was brought into being by the English botanist J.B. Ker Gawler in 1802, who named it for the Latin word triton, a weather vane, due to the variable orientation of the stamens in some species. Tritonia crocata was originally described as Ixia crocata by Linnaeus in 1762. The specific name crocata is derived from Latin and refers to the saffron yellow flowers of Crocus sativus which must have borne resemblance to the dried flowers of Tritonia crocata when it was originally described. Together with T. squalida, T. crocata was one of the species used in the creation of the brightly coloured hybrids widely grown in temperate gardens throughout the world today.
The cup-shaped flowers of T. crocata are pollinated by honey bees. The capsules split open when ripe and the seeds fall to the ground as a result of buffeting and the shaking action caused by strong summer winds.
Uses and cultural aspects
Tritonia crocata is not used medicinally by any of the indigenous peoples of South Africa, but is used in horticulture as a container and bedding plant in many countries.
Growing Tritonia crocata
A sunny, well-ventilated aspect, a sharply-drained growing medium, heavy drenching at regular intervals during the growing season and maintenance of a dry period in dormancy are required for the successful cultivation of Tritonia crocata. It can be grown in containers, window boxes, rock garden pockets and as a front border to larger herbaceous plants. Plant the corms in autumn (April-May) in a sandy soil containing some well-decomposed compost, at a depth of about 2 cm of growing medium above the corm. Corms should be planted close together (about 5 cm apart) to create a massed effect. Allow the growing medium to dry our completely for the summer, or lift them and store in a cool dry place until autumn.
Sow the seeds in autumn in deep seed trays or pots, in a well-drained medium such as equal parts of finely sifted compost and coarse river sand. Cover the seeds with a 3-4 mm layer of sowing medium and keep moist by watering with a fine rose about twice a week, depending on weather conditions. Germination of fresh seeds takes place in about three weeks, and under ideal conditions, flowers can be expected for the first time in the second season.
The developing flower buds are sometimes attacked by aphids, and the foliage often falls prey to rust fungi in winter and to red spider mites in early summer. The corms are subject to mealy bug infestation when grown in containers under enclosed, poorly ventilated conditions.
References and further reading
- De Vos, M.P. 1999. Iridaceae-Ixioideae-Ixieae-Tritoniinae. Flora of southern Africa 7,2,1(first part): 89-128.
- Duncan, G.D. 2006. Spectacular, rewarding tritonias. Veld & Flora 92: 132-137.
- Du Plessis, N.M. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Jeppe, B.J. & Duncan, G.D. 1989. Spring and winter flowering bulbs of the Cape. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
| Graham Duncan Kirstenbosch
National Botanical Garden
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