One autumn a curious set of leaves appeared from the shaggy neck of a very large bulb in my newly acquired garden. The leaves multiplied and extended flat, outward. My guess was a Nerine or Amaryllis belladonna, or perhaps even a cold-hardy Hippeastrum. I was made to wait for flowers; when the full ‘star-burst’ flower head finally unfurled I was stunned.
I was finally able to identify at least the genus when I saw a piece on TV – it may have been an episode of David Attenborough’s wonderful series The Private Life of Plants. The documentary showed a swathe of large, spherical seed heads being uprooted by the wind and tumbled along the semi-arid South African desert floor. As they rolled they released seeds into the then-moist soil. The commentator identified them as a species of Brunsvigia.
The water-rich, non-dormant seeds are borne in dry capsules that are spindle-shaped or three-angled and often heavily ribbed. Once dry, the light, spherical, fruiting heads break loose from the bulb. The triangular-shaped capsules of many species are reminiscent of small kites, which enable the heads to tumble across the ground in the wind. In so doing, the capsules break open and scatter their seeds. (www.plantzafrica.com)
Further research showed my bulb was a mature Brunsvigia josephinae, and this was confirmed by the flower colour, the semi-submersion of the bulb, the brown and papery bulb ‘tunic’ and the plant’s deciduous habit. Lorenz Heisters, a botanist and professor of medicine at the University of Helmstädt first published the name Brunsvigia in 1755. It was named for Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand (Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel) whom it is believed promoted the study of plants, including several Brunsvigia species. The genus, a deciduous, temperate member of the family of Amaryllidaceae, has about 20 species in total and is widespread in southern Africa, mostly in semi-arid areas.
Brunsvigia josephinae (syn. Brunsvigia gydobergensis), commonly called Josephine’s Lily or Candelabra Lily, is named for Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife and the first Empress of France. Joséphine’s garden at her primary estate, the Château de Malmaison, was deemed ‘the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation’. Her connection with South Africa is due to her competitive and compulsive desire to gather plant specimens for Malmaison. Botanists accompanied Napoleon on his various campaigns and other voyagers were engaged to bring back the rare, beautiful and exotic. These included Nicolas Baudin (the Pacific and Australia), Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland (South America) and prominent English nurserymen Lee and Kennedy whom Joséphine even co-funded (and later ran up debts to), particularly for some of the South African collecting trips of the young plant hunter James Niven. At Malmaison she established a huge orangerie, built a greenhouse heated by a dozen coal-burning stoves and erected a large nursery from which she distributed plants to other French garden connoisseurs. From 1803 until her death in 1814, Joséphine cultivated nearly 200 new plants in France for the first time.
Brunsvigia josephinae is a tall variety, at about a metre in height when fully in flower. The blueish-grey leaves (up to as many as 20), which develop in winter, often lie mostly flat on the ground. Its bulbs are some 200 mm in diameter, with the neck and tunic partially exposed. Brunsvigia josephinae is also distinguished by a single, long, initially flattened, dark pink to red flower bud which shoots from each bulb in autumn. Dark red, tubular 15mm long flowers appear atop stalks, with 30 – 40 flowers per stalk. Bulbs can take 12 -14 years to settle (from seed) before they flower, and bulb growers online note they flower annually once established. I have found mine to flower only every second year in the six or so years I have been at this site.
From the seed I have been able to collect, I have not had any success with germination. I suspect I am being too generous with soil quality and water, given the tough conditions shown in the documentary. I also seem to recall the commentator noting there was a very brief window of time for seed to germinate in the freshly rain-moistened South African desert sand and clearly I have not been able to emulate these specific conditions. Nor have any seedlings grown in the vicinity of the one parent plant and the neck shows no signs of new bulbs or bulbils.
Wind assisted dispersal is not the only method the species employs to ensure future plants. In their endemic environment, sunbirds, which feed on the nectar in the long red and curved flowers, are known pollinators. Culturally, the dry bulb tunics are used as a wound dressing and it has been stated young Xhosa men use the tunics as plasters after circumcision. Otherwise infusions of the bulbs are used for medicinal purposes or to enhance divination; however, as with all members of the Amaryllis family, Brunsvigia leaves, stems and bulbs contain phenanthridine alkaloids, which can cause vomiting, hypotension and respiratory depression in humans, cats and dogs. Excess salivation and abdominal discomfort is caused by the raphides (needle-shaped crystals) of calcium oxalate, which are most concentrated in the bulbs.
I am in the throes of transplanting as much of this garden as I can manage (while still leaving a flourishing legacy for the new gardeners). I will lift my large, magnificent Brunsvigia bulb when it is dormant and carefully convey it to its new home – a sandy, Mediterranean-climate garden. These may be exactly the conditions that will foster germination of the next round of viable seeds.
I commented to a friend recently on the abundance of Brunsvigia plants in the small settlement to which I have moved. I had it explained to me that when a particular house was for sale over a decade ago, many local gardeners, in the fear this house’s large and splendid clump of very mature Brunsvigia bulbs would be uprooted and destroyed, raised and replanted bulbs around town overnight. These dispersed bulbs are all thriving, an indication mine too will be happy in its new coastal home.