Tough Tulbaghia

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Tulbaghia violacea

The intensive heat we are experiencing at the moment leaves me quite flattened. I am in awe of someone I know who gardened for hours on Australia Day. It was more than enough for me to venture briefly outside to water my potted plants then scuttle back inside for shelter. At least we can escape the heat. I feel so sorry for my poor plants having to endure the unrelenting sun. There are some things we can do to help them: old sheets can be thrown over very vulnerable specimens, and there is a product called Droughtshield which can be sprayed on plants to reduce transpiration on hot days.

We can also try to choose plants for our gardens that can cope with the ferocity of our summers. One plants which I have been admiring lately for its rugged resilience is the genus Tulbaghia. These are tough South African plants from the Alliaceae/Liliaceae family of plants, which also includes Allium, Agapanthus and Ipheion. Tulbaghia are clump-forming plants with narrow strappy leaves and tall flower stalks holding umbels of pretty, star-shaped flowers from late spring until autumn. They can be grown in pots where space is limited.

Tulbaghia violacea with Agave americana

The most commonly seen species is Tulbaghia violacea (ht 60 to 75 cm), sometimes known as society garlic, which has pungent-smelling leaves. Its dainty lilac or white flowers are produced over a lengthy period and it survives heat and drought very well. It is also fairly cold tolerant, and grows quite well in the farm garden, which has frost in winter. The corm-like rhizomes multiply into a good clump and I have successfully used them for edging a paved area. An attractive cultivar is 'Silver Lace', which has cream-striped leaves and similar flowers to the species. Last year I also acquired a cultivar called 'John May's Special', which is said to be the tallest of all the genus, with stems up to 80 cm. The flowers are larger and coloured mauve-pink. The leaves are also a little broader than the species. I am looking forward to seeing how this one performs. Occasional removal of deadheads and division of the clumps every couple of years are all that are required to keep the plants in good order. They flower best in a sunny, well-drained position, with some compost dug in at planting time. I find it is best to grow the plants near the edges of garden beds, with lower plants around them, so they are not swamped. The colour of the flowers looks effective with nearby silver or purple foliage, and with purple or burgundy blooms.

Tulbaghia cominsii

A rather different species is Tulbaghia cominsii (ht 20 cm), an altogether more petite plant, with thin grassy foliage and delicate pink-flushed white flowers. My clump has been flowering since October, and is planted in a very hot, dry position at the edge of a hedge with a variety of Zephyranthes as companions, and the effect has been pleasing.

Tulbaghia simmleri

In winter, another species comes into bloom: Tulbaghia simmleri (syn. T. fragrans, ht 45 to 60 cm), which has much wider leaves and more sturdy stems of large lilac or white fragrant flowers. It can cope with a little more shade than the other species. I enjoy growing this nearby the deep purple leaves of Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea' and the slim burgundy spires of winter-flowering Salvia elegans Purple Form.

So as another sweltering day sees me indoors, I salute my various Tulbaghia plants, which are standing up so well to our current heatwave!