Craving Color South African-Style

– Posted in: Bulbs

Babiana pulchra

Let us talk about lust. I’m speaking of the insidious longing that grips a girl who pretty much has it all — botanically speaking. I’m talking about the urge that makes someone yearn after her neighbor’s bulbs. It’s depraved. It’s desire run amok. It’s sick. And Debra Lee Baldwin — with her talk of hundreds (maybe thousands, she was vague about it) of babianas in her California yard has only fueled the fires. Because right now (Lord have mercy), I’m coveting my neighbor’s greenhouse and its contents.

Chasmanthe bicolor

Right down the street (hold me back from pushing the SAVE button and jumping into the car again to take yet another peek) there’s a greenhouse. And in that greenhouse resides several containers of jewel-like babianas brandishing their wands of deep royal purple flowers in a color that petunias only try to achieve. But that’s just for starters. Because kicking up their heels and blooming bloody murder are umpteen other South African bulbs. A whole herd of them. We’re talking Connecticut here. In the chilly shadow of the Berkshires. And it’s winter still.

But let me set the stage to give you the full impact of the cosmic contrast. Outdoors: Think bleak. Think mud that slides flotsam from 4 feet of snow as it recedes. Broken branches, whipped trees, hedges splintered into matchsticks, voles running rampant. You get the grizzly picture. Bring up all the shabby, tattered, weary shades of brown you can imagine and apply them here. You got it.

Watsonia laccata (orange) and Ixia flexuosa

Now slip and slide in the mud, skid for the last few feet and kick open the frozen door of a greenhouse. Your arrival is announced by a vapor cloud where the cold air mingles with the warmth inside. Your skin soaks up the humidity with the thirst of a nomad in the desert. Your eyes adjust to the glistening glad hand of a spectrum that you haven’t seen in months (unless you’re Debra). And you emit the sigh of the lost soul who found her Promised Land. You are surveying a panorama of watsonias, chasmanthes, lachenalias, and species freesias wherever you turn. Now do you forgive my descent into desire?

Lachenalia purpureocaerula

I confess. The greenhouse’s caretaker, Rob Girard, is a friend of mine. He sees to the wants and needs of Peter Wooster’s botanical collection and adds to its numbers on a regular basis. The fact that I’ve got a few modest South African bulbs in my puny collection is directly due to Rob’s influence. My holdings are only the pitiful shadow of his magnificent harem of brightly colored creatures that make winter livable and (dare I say) delightful.

If a genie granted me only three South African bulbs, I’d start with lachenalia. Do you agree? In my experience, lachenalias are a cinch and they are easy to find, try Brent & Becky’s Bulbs . Lachenalias come in the full spectrum of colors and some add fragrance to the brew as well. Beyond that, it’s a toss up between the bright orange, dragon-like flowers on Chasmanthe bicolor, the Halloween orange-hued spikes of Cyrtanthus mackenii (I named a particularly bright cultivar ‘Hobgoblin’ back when I was at Logee’s Greenhouses), and the pink poker-like spires of Veltheimia bracteata. (I know…that’s four — genies are meant to be pushed beyond their limits, right?) Of that group, only the chasmanthe has been slightly challenging in a home windowsill environment.


I believe in going to the top. So I sought advice from a botanical garden expert when I first began dabbling in South African bulbs. He insisted that they require ardent sun, cactus-like soil, and nearly non-existent water. The sun part was on target. But too much drainage from a gritty soil only seems to stress them in my home. Mine hate to dry out in a home environment. Anyone else have feedback on this?

After the mud moment, spring will come with all its attendant bulbs. The South African bulb event will slip away, and I’ll move on to different dalliances. But that’s the beauty of South African bulbs. You just store them over the winter for future lust. A convenient affair, no?




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Laura Thomas March 28, 2011, 8:26 am

Wow, what a beautifully written piece. I definitely suffer from gardener’s lust looking at those gorgeous Babiana pulchra, especially during this anxious time of year.

Gosh is it good to hear that someone else is feeling anxious at this time of year, Laura. Besides a few much appreciated puschkinias and scattered snowdrops, there’s not much reassurance to spell the difference between spring and wasteland, I don’t care what the calendar says. How’s it looking up there in Canadaland? Has your snow melted yet?

Jack Holloway March 29, 2011, 5:15 am

An amusing post. More so as I tend to be very haphazard in my own cultivation of local bulbs. Not that those you mentioned are ‘local’… they are all from the mediterranian climate of the far tip of the Western Cape, a minute part of South Africa, although the world’s richest plant biome… Where the summers are hot and dry, but winter and early spring wet to very wet – which is why they flower early, before the dry heat sets in and which is why treating them like desert plants is disasterous. They cope with the dry heat by going dormant. But they are quite temperate in their flowering season! I grow few of them because my hot wet summers make them rot. Perhaps I should include a ‘dry greenhouse’ for their summer storage in a roofed area I am planning… for you’ve made even me, with my surfeit of my own local wild flowers, envious!

So you’ve solved the mystery, Jack. Thank you so much for the insight into why these bulbs don’t follow the usual recipe. Mine slurp up water like there’s no tomorrow. Have you ever tried them in containers? I know, it must sound like our version of potting up buttercups, but still. Perhaps you know — should I be fertilizing them in winter? Is their soil rich in their native habitat?

Elephant's Eye March 29, 2011, 3:47 pm

The winter rainfall fynbos bulbs are used to notoriously poor soil. Bit of leaf mulch maybe?

There you go — Then all we have to do is use some of our typical non-organic potting soils here in the USA, because they’re notoriously poor.

Marie April 3, 2011, 7:31 am

Here’s a slideshow for you, to whet your appetite for a South African spring, I highly recommend a visit 🙂

Geophytes from here really do need to be ignored in the dry season, and given no water. They do best in pots in more humid climates.

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