East of the better-known Western Cape Province, closer to the city of Durban, lies a stunningly beautiful and rather small range of mountains, the Drakensberg. For a long weekend, I explored solo the accessible slopes of its northern end. There, dotted in the grasslands, were agapanthus and tree ferns, cabbage trees and … pineapple lilies. I have always loved pineapple lilies, but upon seeing masses of this particularly colorful one (Eucomis spp), I was definitely hooked.
There couldn’t be anything easier to grow than pineapple lilies. In any sizable terra-cotta pot or right in a flower bed, they happily sprout from a sturdy globular bulb and unfold light green, glossy leaves. From this rosette comes up a rigid, vertical stem on which is amassed quantities of small flowers. There are about 15 species of Eucomis, and this spectacular one, shot in the wild, remains unidentified, to me at least.
Plantsmen and breeders have recently turned their attention to this little-known bulb. The results are giant (5 feet) or dwarf (shorter than 12 inches), flushed with purple or pure white, and so on. In warmer climates (like mine) they are left to overwinter outside — as long as their soil drains sharply. Elsewhere they can be dug up and stored like dahlias and gladioli. Recently a friend of mine at the Montreal Botanical Garden mass planted some, to arresting effect.
(Lachenalia spp) The somewhat extreme weather (hot, sunny and limited rainfall) that blights South Africa is for some — succulents and such — a blessing. Other plants have adapted by disappearing underground once things get too tough; bulbs do just that; they retreat into their onion full of reserves. In the Cape Province, bulbs abound like nowhere else on earth. One of its endemic genera, the most charming of them all, is nicknamed Cape hyacinth (here seen tucked between the rocks is Lachenalia peersii).
And indeed Lachenalias do look like miniature hyacinths (Hyacinthus) or, better, like grape hyacinths (Muscari). There are more than a hundred species of them, some highly fragrant, other sporting the rarest shades of turquoise blue. Most should be kept as potted specimens, discussion pieces for real pros. Better garden varieties (foolproof varieties, I should say) have started gracing our nursery shelves, lost among other bedding plants. Grab them; they are adorable.
(Moreae spp) Back in the “Dragon Mountains,” I encountered for the first time representatives of the genus Moreae, the butterfly iris. As varied and exotic looking as the Cape hyacinth, butterfly irises tend to go completely dormant during the dry season.
A minority, though, like this one example (Moraea alticola), remains evergreen. With only a couple to a few leathery leaves, however long, its remaining evergreen does sound like a lesser challenge. A decade after my introductory visit to the Drakensberg, a few seeds that had inadvertently fallen in my pocket have germinated, and a single seedling has survived my Vancouver winters as well as my constant neglect ever since. The first bloom, which I am still awaiting, will be like receiving a postcard sent long, long ago.