Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
- Matthew 6:28-33
Tigridia pavonia is a member of the Iris (Iridaceae) family, commonly known as the 'tiger', 'peacock' or 'shell' flower, sometimes with 'Mexican' added as a prelude for extra spice. These spectacular flowers bloom for only a day but their glorious beauty will delight onlookers and growers alike. Just make sure your camera is primed and ready to capture the all-too-short, awesome display.
A South American Diva
The Tigridia pavonia is a half-hardy plant from South America, notably Peru and Mexico. The plant was grown by the Aztecs, about a thousand years ago. They knew it as cacomitl; the edible roots were part of their diet.
Grown from corms1, they should be planted in the spring, approximately three to four inches (seven to ten cms) deep in well-drained soil with lots of sun. Line the base of the planting hole with grit or sand for drainage. Plant lots of corms close together (but not actually touching) - clumps can be divided after digging up. The plants can reach a height of over two feet (60cm) so they may need to be tied to a cane during growth to ensure ramrod-straight stems.
The flower has three large petals with three tiny petals separating them. The larger petals are one full colour, but the smaller ones are spotted. When the flower blooms, the petals spread wide, reaching around six inches (15cm) across. The display of the inner bowl, which is a darker version of the smaller petals, is quite stunning. The impressively-long prominent stamen has no doubt evolved to ensure a greater chance of insect pollination. Seriously, the bees can't miss it. The overall effect makes the flower look just like one of those large ground telescopes searching for extra-terrestrial life.
On some of the inner bowls, a pattern in the spotting can clearly be distinguished. This resembles a tiger's head, hence the name 'tiger flower'.
The leaves are long and pleated, tapering to a point. The different shades of green along the length give the impression of stripes. Some leaves sprout from the stem just above others, but on the opposite side. This extra wrap is a haven for snail eggs; so, you'll need to examine the plant carefully (at least daily) to ensure it doesn't end up eaten before its day of glory.
Keep a sharp eye out for the imminent flowering stage2, because you won't want to hear from your smug neighbour that 'your Mexican Tiger flowers were spectacular' as you return from your summer holiday.
Care and Aftercare
Once the plants have started to grow, you need to keep the soil moist. Expect flowering on a day with full sun, any time between June and September. However, don't pick it, as it may flower again from another bud lower down the stem. Remember to take a photograph as the flower will close at dusk and by the next day it will be a shrivelled hulk.
The corms need to be dug up in the autumn and stored somewhere dry and frost-free until the following spring. Should there be any cormlets, remove them to be grown separately, they're effectively free plants and will be big enough to produce flowers in a couple of years. Over the winter period check the garden shed for mice, who would love to nibble the stored corms.
'Canariensis' has large canary-yellow petals with dark red spotted markings on the darker yellow smaller petals and centre bowl. Once opened, the centre bowl is triangular-shaped, as are the large petals.
'Rubra' has large salmon heart-shaped petals with a yellow band spotted with blood red above the bowl. The smaller yellow and red-speckled petals are quite prominent. In the inner circular bowl the red blobs are so thick that they almost obliterate the background yellow.
Other varieties include: 'Alba'; 'Aurea'; 'Lilacea'; 'Speciosa' and 'Sunset in Oz'. Larger petal colours vary from white, light to dark yellow, orange, salmon pink, deep pink and peach. Larger petals can vary in shape from flower to flower, with some sharp-edged and others teardrop-shaped. Some, with a lighter central stripe, even resemble a panting tiger's tongue!
Spreading the Love
According to folklore, Tigridia pavonia has been used to promote fertility; but it's not certain whether it was receiving the flowers that put the lady in a receptive mood or imbibing the plant's edible corms boiled3 up as part of a love-potion.
To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see Heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.
- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1789.