Lachenalia forms a large genus of over 100 flowering geophytic species.This large bulb flowering family is almost entirely endemic to Southern Africa and can be circumscribed still further as most species grow in the winter-rainfall region of South Africa’s Western Cape. Other areas that marginally represent members of the genus include other South African provinces and also South African regions that border Namibia. This strong link between endemism, Lachenalia and Southern Africa, can also be seen in Gladiolus, for instance, where some 260 species of the 300 Gladiolus located worldwide are native to the same Southern African regions, cohabiting with Lachenalia what African lands remain uncultivated.
Like Gladiolus, Lachenalia began its journey into horticultural preoccupation in the 1800s — both being hybridised early during this century. But where Gladiolus, with its almost biblical ancestry as ‘lilies of the field’, had a preordained place in gardens, Lachenalia by comparison — lacking all cut-flower potential — had to find its way into gardens via a slower route, with the first complete account of the genus only being published in 2012. Without the advantage of having a tall flower stem, Lachenalia’s dwarfed inflorescences were unable to demand the attention required to hurl them into floral stardom. Rather, growing these unique, tubular flowered, and leathery leafed winter bulbs in pots or directly in beds has been the only way for gardeners to get to appreciate their intricate flowering beauty.
Still today, Lachenalia remains a gardener’s plant and not a florist’s. It is doubtful that the genus will ever play a large role in the cut-flower market, for hybridising, genetically modifying, selectively 'breeding', and cultivating them in order to eventually produce a stem that can compete alongside the grandeur of Gladiolus would be, perhaps, too much of a prodigious task. For gardeners, of course, Lachenalias are as aesthetically beautiful as any sincere plant lover could wish for, even in its many diminutive and subtle colored forms. Similar to other Southern African species, such as Gethyllis, a plant and fruity aphrodisiac, Freesia, Sparaxis, Babiana, and Hyacinth, the Wild Hyacinth (Lachenalia) requires one to get ones hands dirty to enjoy its beautiful bell-like flowers.
Lachenalia flowers vary in color from species to species. There are illuminous turquoise, sea-green flowered species (viridiflora), as well as bright reds (rosea), pinks (anguinea) and purples (splendidissima), burning oranges, browns, yellows and greens (alloides). In several species, flowers are multicolored. Lachenalia quadricolor for instance has four distinct bands of color on each and the same individual flower. Lachenalia leaves are leathery in feel and can be found in almost grass- or needle-like shapes (Lachenalia orthopetala), as well as broader, flattened and oval leafy forms (Lachenalia bulbifera). Many of the native Southern African species have mottled and spotted leaves, often in a dark burgundy to black color. This adds to their popularity as unique potted subjects even in the absence of flowers. The bulbs that support these ornamental potting subjects are almost always about marble size, with healthy bulbs often appearing creamy white and being sort of gelatinous to the touch. Seed is without exception small, glossy and black, varying only slightly with regard to shape; sometimes rounded, but more usually in the shape of a pointed pinhead.
Recommended Locality to view Lachenalia in nature: African Bulb Flower Reserve, Kamiesberg101. Located at 101 DeWaal Drive, Kamieskroon, South Africa.