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Plant Highlight: Bulbinella nutans

March 2005

In late February and March, The Ruth Bancroft Garden is enlivened by the bright yellow flowers of our resident Bulbinella. Plants in this genus have short rhizomatous underground stems surmounted by a tuft of long, narrow, bright-green leaves. The stem and leaf-bases are usually sheathed in the fibrous remains of the old leaves. The genus has an interesting distribution, with 17 species occurring in the western part of South Africa and 6 in New Zealand. The leaves are deciduous, appearing each year at the start of the growing season and withering away during the resting period. These plants are members of the Asphodelaceae, which includes other genera such as Bulbine and Kniphofia (red-hot pokers). In the past, plants in this family were included in the lily family.

Our plants have been going under the name Bulbinella floribunda, a name listed in botanical reference works such as Hortus. However, in 1999 Pauline Perry published the book Bulbinella in South Africa, in which she noted uncertainties surrounding this name, which goes back to the late 1700’s. As was often the case in those days, the description is not very exact, and it is therefore difficult to be certain which plants the name should apply to. Consequently she discards the name. Going by her key and illustrations, our plants seem to fall under B. nutans. This species is native to the southwestern corner of South Africa, the region where Cape Town is located. The climate in this area is similar to ours, with wet winters and dry summers, and the plants have thrived in the garden, multiplying over the years. The leaves come up after the onset of the rains in the autumn months, and persist through the winter. Towards the end of the winter, in February and March, the racemes of yellow flowers emerge. These are up to about 3 feet or so in height (1 meter). Their burst of brilliant yellow is a welcome presence, but when using them in the garden it must be remembered that they disappear during the summer.