The Phyto-Philes Special: Spring Gardening in South Africa, Part I

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Spring Gardening in South Africa, 2014, Part I

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Here in the Southern Hemisphere we are enjoying springtime! In northern South Africa right now it is hot and sunny. Over here the wintertime is not very cold, but rather a long period of drought. We have had only a few light rain showers so far, starting in mid-October, barely enough to wet the soil, and in spite of most of my plants being quite drought hardy, I've had to water them a few times for the sake of keeping them in top health. It is getting high time for some decent thundershowers! We get a few of them each season, and they are vital for giving the soil a thorough drenching and replenishing the water table. Many residences here depend on boreholes for their water supply. I only have municipal water, which can be unreliable – a few days ago I was without water, but it's back again now! I am very careful with using water, and also water my plants fairly lightly.


But now for the plants! As I've mentioned in my winter entry, it is mainly aloes that bloom in winter. But come spring, a lot of other kinds spring into flower. My first photo shows the beautiful yellow flowers of the Sjambok Pod, Cassia abbreviata. I had to get on a ladder to get a close-up photo of them! This is a small tree, reaching 10m/33' in height. It is one of the first trees to flower after the winter, the flowers indeed emerging before the leaves, so that the whole tree is covered in yellow. (You can see the leaves just starting out in my photo.) The flowers are intriguingly shaped, too, with curvy petals and stamens. This tree is in the leguminous family, bearing huge pods, for which it is named. A sjambok is a thick, leather whip, and the pods of this tree are also long and whip-like, reaching 1m/yard in length! Sjambok pods grow in the warmer, dryer parts of the savannahs and open woodlands of our region. I consider it an excellent garden tree. It grows quite fast, mine being just a few years in age, but doesn't get overwhelmingly big. It is very drought resistant but when young must be protected against frost.

Blue Squill.

The next photo is the Blue Squill, Merwilla plumbea. This is a bulbous plant, in the Hyacinth family. This family is especially diverse in my own region, with lots of truly charming species. The blue squill is one of the largest members, standing over a metre tall when in flower. Like some other members of the family, its bulbs stand halfway above the soil level. Its flowers vary from very light blue, almost white, like in the photo, to a deeper pastel blue. It goes dormant in winter, the leaves dying back, new leaves emerging from the bulbs in the next spring. This species can grow in the open sun or in light shade. It is found in grassland and rocky places in the northeast of South Africa. I still would love to find more forms of this species as it is quite diverse.

Nelson's Slime Lily.

Next is Albuca nelsonii which sometimes goes under the unpleasant name of Nelson's Slime Lily! William Nelson first brought this species to Britain. The Albucas are generally called slime lilies; I think it's because they have a slimy sap, but I've never encountered it because I don't damage my own plants! Albucas are actually charming plants; they are abundant and diverse in my own region. They vary from tiny to quite large and impressive. This is one of the largest kinds. Like the blue squill it is in the Hyacinth family, and has fleshy bulbs growing mostly above the soil level. Its flowers are some of the largest in the genus, reaching 5 cm/2" in diameter. The flowers are typical for Albuca, only the outer three petals opening out fully, the inner three remaining clinging to each other to form a tube of sorts. It has a very scattered distribution, from the eastern Cape to my own province of Limpopo, growing in grassland.

Impala Lily

Spring is also the time for planting seeds! At least, the seeds of the summer-growing plants, are the vast majority of what I cultivate. Here you see a new batch of my Impala Lily plants, Adenium multiflorum. They are some of the fastest plants to germinate; I've sown the seeds only a few days before, and here they are germinating and already starting to thicken! You can see some of them still have the hard, dry seed coats over their 'heads' like little hats. These rapidly fall off though. I've sown quite a lot of seeds this spring, apart from the Impala lilies also Kudu Lilies, Quiver Trees, wild cotton or Ipomoea albivenia which I hope to write up here soon, Adenia fruticosa plants that I got from Silverhill Seeds, and many others.

For more of Willem's spring flowers, see Part II of this article.

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