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Plant Highlight: Veltheimia capensis

December 2009

Among the many wonderful bulbs native to South Africa is a species named Veltheimia capensis.  The genus Veltheimia is a small one, containing only two species; the other one is the more commonly grown Veltheimia bracteata (sometimes grown under the name Veltheimia viridifolia).  This genus is placed in the family Hyacinthaceae, or in older books in the Liliaceae.  While Veltheimia capensis is a winter-rainfall species, Veltheimia bracteata comes from farther east, where it gets some rainfall throughout the year.

Veltheimia capensis is dormant during the summer months, with both the leaves and the inflorescence emerging in fall.  The tapering leaves, up to a foot long (30 cm), are an attractive bluish color, with decoratively undulating margins.  The flower spike rises to a height of a foot or more (30 to 40 cm), with a dense raceme of tubular flowers reminiscent of a red-hot poker (Kniphofia) or an aloe.  The flower color is pale pink to reddish-pink, with darker red or purplish-red speckling.  The flowers are tipped with green at the bud stage, but this fades when the flowers open, at which point the violet-red of the inside of the tepal tips becomes visible.  At the Ruth Bancroft Garden, the flowering takes place in November and December.

The inflated seed capsules which develop following flowering are 3-winged and papery.  The three chambers each contain two black pear-shaped seeds.  The beautiful wavy bluish foliage persists through the winter months, and then dies back for its summer resting period, leaving the papery upper part of the bulb exposed until the next growing season.  Our plant of Veltheimia capensis has remained single, while Veltheimia bracteata has increased to form a good-sized clump.  Veltheimia capensis needs plenty of sun, while Veltheimia bracteata can take quite a bit of shade.  Both are attractive and easy to grow, but should be protected from extremes of cold.