Gardening with South African Plants


Brunsvigias in Harold Porter NBG

An exciting surprise in late summer at the Cape , when little else is flowering, is the emergence of large pinkish 'eggs' suddenly pushing their way above ground. They quickly elongate to become topped with enormous rounded flowerheads or sturdy paintbrushes. These spectacular flowers all belong to bulbous plants which have been dormant in summer. What makes the flowers even more surprising is that they pop up out of the bare ground, normally without a leaf in sight!

Five of these late summer surprises are discussed here. All belong to the Amaryllis family, the Amaryllidaceae and all are deciduous species. One of the most spectacular is Brunsvigia orientalis, the candelabra flower, which produces a huge round candelabra-like flowerhead.

Haemanthus coccineusAnother is Haemanthus coccineus, the April fool, which starts off looking like a snake's head emerging from the ground and ends up like a huge paintbrush surrounded by sealing wax bracts.

Amaryllis belladonna, the March lily or belladonna lily as it is also called, flowers from February to April, mainly after fires. Its large heads of cream to deep pink trumpet-like flowers contrast magnificently with their blackened surroundings. Fire, however, is not necessary for flowering.

Cybistetes longifolia.Photo:Graham DuncanThere is only one species of Cybistetes - Cybistetes longifolia, the malgas lily. Although the flowering period is very short, a mass of these lilies is an unforgettable sight. The malgas lily, and the March lily, both have a wonderful scent.

Nerine sarniensis, the lovely red Guernsey lily, is one of 25 species in the genus Nerine. In late February to the middle of March the first heads begin to appear and by the end of March a patch of these golden dusted lilies is an absolute 'must see'! Superb hybrids have been produced with this species as one of the parents.

Amaryllid ecology
Most amaryllids native to the Western Cape are dormant during the dry summer season. The flowers of many species appear just before the rainy season is due. The seed is dispersed and germinates almost immediately. The seedling, therefore, has a full rainy season to develop sufficiently to be able to withstand its first dormancy. In several of the species the leaves usually only appear after the flowers have produced seed. This is known as hysteranthy.

Growing Amaryllids
Grown as pot plants these plants will grace a sunny patio that does not get too hot, and form a focal point while in flower. The leaves can be a very attractive feature also, but once these begin to die down, the pots can be removed to a dry area until they break dormancy again with the emergence of the flowerhead. They need an extremely well-drained, very sandy medium. A little compost may be added, but this is not necessary. Amaryllids are best grown from seed.

In the Harold Porter NBG

Should you prefer to grow them directly in your garden, choose a well-drained natural corner of the garden where plants must rely on the normal winter rainfall. The five species listed here are all from the south-western Cape winter rainfall area and do not require water in summer. They enjoy a sunny spot and do not like to compete with too many other plants. Place them near a path or an open area with low-growing ground covers so you can enjoy their spectacular, but short-lived flowering time.

Jane Forrester
Harold Porter National Botanical Garden
March 2003.

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