The Cape Floral Kingdom, at the southernmost tip of Africa, contains the richest diversity of colorful bulbs found anywhere in the world. Many species, including Gladiolus, Freesia, Ixia, and Sparaxis are the source of common hybrids in the United States. South African bulbs can be divided into two categories: those that bloom in late winter or early spring and prefer a dry summer, and those that are summer blooming and winter dormant. These natural growing cycles are influenced by ocean currents, altitude, rainfall, and seasonal temperatures.
Lachenalia is one of the most varied and interesting of all South African bulbs and is among the earliest of the winter-blooming bulbs; some species send up shoots in late fall. Several of the species produce appealing spotted leaves, including the most widely cultivated species, Lachenalia aloides. Lachenalia aloides var. aloides, better known as Lachenalia tricolor, is one of the showiest varieties, featuring yellow flowers with reddish-orange tips and bright green gibbosities. Most Lachenalia flowers are multicolored, but Lachenalia viridiflora is a striking exception; with eerie, milky-blue flowers in late winter, it’s an unforgettable sight.
Baboon flower may seem like a strange name but, in fact, baboons do eat the bulbs of baboon flower. Babiana odorata produces spikes of sweetly fragrant flowers with butter-yellow petals splotched with brighter yellow. If bold and brassy is your thing, you’ll enjoy Babiana villosa. There’s nothing subtle about their fire engine-red flowers with contrasting purple stamens. Baboon flowers produce thickets of distinctively pleated leaves, which come up in the fall as if to remind the gardener, “We’re still here.” Flowers arrive in late winter to early spring.
Perhaps my favorite South African bulb is the wildly exotic Ferraria. At first glance, this iris family member’s star-shaped flowers and crazily crinkled edges make it look more like a tide pool creature than a flower. The purple-spotted white center of Ferraria crispa bleeds out to turquoise with crinkled chartreuse borders. Weirder yet is Ferraria crispa ssp. crispa with deliciously chocolate petals and rich purple centers.
Many readers will be familiar with commonly available Sparaxis tricolor hybrids but several other species are worth seeking out. Sparaxis elegans offers vivid orange flowers with an immediately recognizable dark-spotted ring around a purple center. Equally striking, the saturated purple flowers of Sparaxis grandiflora ssp. grandiflora lack the round form and center ring of the tricolor hybrids, but they capture your attention with their vivid color. Sparaxis flowers protect their buds with a silky sheath until flowers emerge in early spring.
The unforgettable Moraea villosa is better known as peacock iris because of its striking colors. Pale to solid lavender petals have vivid blue eyes around a copper center. Planted in masses, they put on a spectacular spring show. Other species, such as the vivid yellow Moraea huttonii, more closely resemble their iris cousins.
South Africa is home to many species of Gladiolus including the striking G. alatus. Like most South African species, G. alatus flowers are small. Dreamy orange upper petals with chartreuse lower tepals arise on slender stems. Though delicate looking, it is surprisingly hardy. Gladiolus carneus offers larger pink petals with dramatic crimson spotting and is one of the most vigorous of all Cape gladioli. It’s easy to find in nurseries, and it colonizes readily in the garden.
And finally, though the word oxalis enrages many gardeners, most species are harmless. Oxalis hirta is one of the most charming plants you’ll ever grow. Featuring tiny, bright-green leaves, each with three obovate leaflets, this plant produces an abundance of vivid orchid-pink flowers in early winter.
While far fewer summer-blooming bulbs from the Cape are available in the nursery trade, one of my favorites is Haemanthus. Known by the exotic name of blood lily, all Haemanthus species are bulbous geophytes with perennial, fleshy roots that produce dense clusters of red, pink, or white flowers. Sometimes called shaving brush flower because of the hundreds of upright stamens that resemble that old-fashioned brush, Haemanthus albiflos is a most cooperative bloomer.
Watsonia is perhaps the most recognizable summer-blooming Cape bulb. Though they have been hybridized, you can still find outstanding and tough species. Start with the stately Watsonia fourcadei with red, orange, or pink flowering stems reaching an impressive six feet tall. Largely evergreen, this bulb adds color and vertical form to the summer garden. The unique Watsonia tabularis offers exquisite peach-colored, flared-goblet flowers.
Finally, we can’t leave out Nerine, a showy bulb genus in the amaryllis family, which contains 30 species. Most outstanding is the vigorous Nerine bowdenii, grown for its spherical umbels of lily-like flowers. Notable features include the pronounced, reflexed pink, red, or white tepals with wavy margins. As with Amaryllis, flowers appear before the strap-shaped leaves. The plants are known to be very cold hardy and can handle the colder climates of inland areas in California.
Growing South African Bulbs
Most genera/species are sun lovers; of the bulbs mentioned here, only Haemanthus likes some relief from heat. South African bulbs require excellent drainage and many can deal with poor soils. Most benefit from an off-season dry period—particularly true for Lachenalia and Gladiolus. As many of these bulbs will colonize an area over time, there is an advantage to putting them in the ground. That said, they can be grown in pots. I have kept Lachenalia and gladioli in pots, as it is much easier to give them their necessary dry season.
Growing these colorful and unusual bulbs can add real spice and variety to your gardening experience—but be forewarned—once you start collecting these beauties, it is hard to stop!