The turkey wattle gladioli (Gladiolus alatus), growing in the wild in the Drakensteinberge Mountains, near Wellington, South Africa

Grace Your Table with South African Splendor

Holiday time brings the home gardener one of the greatest fragrance treats of the year: potted freesias. This lovely South African plant has become a winter staple for easy bulb-forcing. Grown alongside the elegant (but not African) paperwhite narcissus, an indoor garden is filled with a lovely aroma when these beauties open their tender petals. Both of these plants make great holiday gifts in pots or as fresh-cut flowers.

While we’re on the subject, it’s fitting to talk about the great botanical explorer Francis Masson and his South African gifts to modern horticulture. Centuries after he first shipped wild calla lilies (Zantedeschia) to England, we enjoy them as potted plants in our summer water gardens. Having shed their association with funerals, callas are popular for cut flowers in contemporary settings and sumptuous hand-tied bridal bouquets. Even more popular is the trend to use minis, smaller cultivars that are available now in a rainbow of white, pink, lavender, orange, red and purple.

Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturist Jason Delany also has found many African calla lilies to be quite hardy in St. Louis, with ‘Picasso’, a cream variety with purple shading. Most varieties have inherited some hardiness, along with many luscious colors, from Z. rehmannii. The species Z. ellotiana and Z. aethiopica are not as hardy, but may be easily lifted for winter basement storage. All callas prefer perpetually damp soils.

The African-Inspired Bulb Border

South Africa is famous for more than 1,000 species of bulbs. The Cape region alone has more than 100 species of gladiolas, including the delightfully sweet Gladiolus alatus. Many of the tiny species and F1 hybrids are much more suited for our Missouri gardens than the gaudy, overly common funeral glads. Jason loves Gladiolus papillio, a diminutive, yet gorgeous, autumn-flowering species with greenish-bronze and brownish-red hooded flowers on graceful, arching stems. ‘Ruby’ is a papillio variety with more traditional-looking, delicate flowers. Both like well-drained soils.

My herb garden includes a hardy clump of society garlic (Tulbaghia capensis from the Cape of Good Hope) and the perennial border boasts Crocosmia ‘Lucifer,’ an African garden devil that occasionally gets out of hand. Fire lilies, Cyrtanthus mackenii and hybrids, seem adapted to our winters, but they are still under evaluation. Jason recommends planting them 3- to 4-inches deep in the spring and under full sun. The slender, tubular flowers are very fragrant and come in selections of white, pink, red, orange, and vivid yellow, with first bloom in late spring and a repeat show into the summer.

For bloom during the hottest months, try summer hyacinth, Galtonia candicans. It provides lots of flowers from July into August. Well-draining soil and full sun are all they need to provide yearly bloom on 3-foot stalks.

Do You Have 'Bulbs' in Your Garden?

Gardeners tend to lump all plants with underground storage organs into the catch-all label ‘bulbs.’ In the broad sense, this category includes many different kinds of plants that have fleshy storage organs and a dormant period in their life cycles. It can be very confusing for the novice gardener to learn that a bulb may not be a bulb after all! Here is a short breakdown of the different kinds of plants that are lumped into this group:

True bulbs, like onions, tulips, lilies and garlic, have roots only at the base attached to an internal structure called a basal plate. Above that are very fleshy layers which become leaves and wrap around the meristem or growing tip. If you slice a bulb, you will see many layers or rings. All bulbs have a top and bottom, so they must be planted in the correct orientation to help them grow properly.

Corms are similar to bulbs in that they have a top and bottom. Roots come out the bottom, but a corm is made from fat, fleshy stem tissue and may have multiple meristems or growing points. If you cut open a corm, you will find no rings. Common corms include the African gladiolus and freesia, crocus and crocosmia.

True tubers contain no basal plate. They originate from stem or hypocotyl tissues. They will have no rings when cut open. Common tubers include caladium, begonia, oxalis and the regular white kitchen potato. To divide them, the entire organ is sliced into pieces, each with a growing point we commonly call ‘eyes.’

Tuberous roots are storage organs that grow from fleshy root tissue and must have a stem attached in order to sprout out. They do not have rings. Typical tuber-rooted plants are dahlias, daylilies and sweet potatoes.

Rhizomes are specialized stems that grow sideways underground or along the soil surface. Popular rhizomes include iris, ginger and—believe it or not—bamboo!

To be a successful bulb grower (using the broadest sense of the word), one must recognize the type of dormancy and climate that individual plants require. Many of our temperate bulbs require winter chilling to complete their dormancy cycle. Forced flowers like Narcissus and tulips will not flower unless they have had a chilling cycle of refrigeration. But if you chill tropical bulbs, you can kill them. Most of the African bulbous plants require a dry season for their dormancy. If you keep them wet year-round when growing them as houseplants, you may destroy them. There are others that are evergreen year-round, and might have the structure of a bulb, but don’t have regular dormancy. Plants that may keep their leaves year-round would include clivia and agapanthus.

The World in Our Gardens

The educated gardener may travel, read and experiment to learn the limits and opportunities of their own garden or windowsill. We are lucky to have trial beds, international landscapes and protected glasshouses at the Missouri Botanical Garden to give us new ideas and fresh plant varieties to invigorate our gardening palette. Later in the spring, I’ll share more about the newest daisies from South Africa. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading or gifting Cape Bulbs by Richard L. Doutt (Timber Press). It is a good armchair companion and an authoritative guide to learn about the beauty, care and culture of South African bulbs, tubers, corms, rhizomes.


Holiday Shopping at the Missouri Botanical Garden Garden Gate Shop

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St. Louis, Mo 63110

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