Bold South African bulbs

Friday, 17 October 2008

October sees the blooming of some dramatic South African bulbs and rhizomes, as the dainty early spring varieties fade.

Some of these belong to the broad Iridaceae family - whose better-known members, the bearded iris and the Louisiana iris, also come into flower in October in Sydney.

Watsonia are tough bulbs which thrive with ease in our climate. Watsonia borbonica (ht 1.5m) is one of the most commonly seen, with spires massed with pink, mauve or white funnel-shaped flowers. Watsonia 'Wedding Bells' is a very pretty pink form, with narrow, tubular flowers, possibly a cultivar of Watsonia aletroides. Rare Watsonia vanderspuyiae has attractive broad leaves 2m in length and brilliant red flowers. All these species, which grow in winter, enjoy a sunny, well-drained position that is dry in summer when they are dormant. They form good clumps and can be picked for vases. Watsonia meriana 'Bulbillifera' is a weedy form, best avoided.

Species Gladiolus are on a slightly smaller scale, but just as tough and they grow in the same sort of conditions as Watsonia. Gladiolus carneus (ht 60cm) is probably the easiest sort, with white flared trumpet flowers sporting purple markings. They will happily multiply in a dry, sunny spot. The lovely pink sorts seem harder to keep going in the Sydney climate.

Another member of the iris family is Aristea capitata (syn. Aristea major), which also grows in clumps of long evergreen leaves to 1.5m. Its brilliantly blue, saucer-shaped flowers are massed on a tall stem. It needs better soil than the Watsonia and Gladiolus, with a reasonable supply of moisture in winter and spring. Sun suits it best. For compact spaces, there is a much smaller version, Aristea ecklonii (ht 45cm), with sparser spikes of blue flowers.

Also evergreen, though from a different plant family (Haemodoraceae, to which our native kangaroo paws also belong), Wachendorfia thyrsiflora is similar in form and stature to the tall Aristea, and has beautiful golden yellow flowers clustered on tall stems (ht 1.5 - 1.8m), held amongst attractive fans of pleated leaves to 1m. It likes moist, reasonably rich soil and will languish in poorer positions.

All these bulbous/rhizomatous plants make a striking statement in the October garden.

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