Lachenalia: The flowering harmony

Have you ever wondered what inspired Mike Oldfield to record his iconic 1973 tune ‘Tubular Bells’? Musos will say it was his percussion instrument of tubular-bell chimes, but we horticulturists are convinced he was paying tribute to the tubular-bell-shaped Lachenalia, also known as Cape cowslip or wild hyacinth. After all, it’s difficult not to be drawn to dedicate music to our fascinating, cutely shaped indigenous plant. Often bi- or tri-coloured, there are over 120 species of Lachenalia from South Africa and Namibia. Just imagine all of these colours dancing in the wind as if swaying to the sound of Oldfield’s verses, spreading their sweet scent as they rock to and fro. Yes, we’re sure this was his motivation.

In fact, viooltjie, another name to which Lachenalia answers, shows that this plant really was meant to have musical followers. The name references the plant’s very own sound symposium – a squeaky violin-like sound that’s heard when two flower stalks are rubbed together.

It’s rather easy to grow your own Lachenalia harmony, which will develop a tapering bloom that offers shape to the sound, with a musical score that could last up to five weeks. Whether you go for Namaqua® with yellow bells and red tips, or the reverse colour dip in Robijn®, you’re bound to be mesmerised by the symphony that escalates in your garden. Other hybrids such as the yellowy-green Romaud®, the more slender, dark-yellow Ronina® and the lavender-coloured Rupert® will also make your pots sing happily.

To start, pick pots or a spot in your garden with very good drainage and a lot of sunlight (rock gardens work very well). Also, choose light soil. Where areas are loamy or clay-like, work sand into the mix, without adding compost. Lachenalia makes the best music when watered regularly and deeply, but stops playing when watered in summer. For this reason, in summer-rainfall regions, stop watering in November and lift the bulbs in December to store them in holey paper bags until springtime. However, while the bulbs are still in the soil, it’s important not to let the soil dry out completely, as this could trigger dormancy. If planted in the garden, water them every four days with a sprinkler, for 40 minutes at a time.

When it’s time to plant in March and April, position bulbs two centimetres below the ground, and about five centimetres apart to get the most effective results – a fabulous melody that will bloom from July to October. If you choose your varieties cleverly, you could have a succession of crescendos, as flowering times vary between specific plants.

Between the incredible diversity in flowers and foliage – from single broad leaves or many upstanding grass-like leaves to speckled, hairy or smooth – the Lachenalia experience is all about its musical composer. Get moving; the next iconic tune could be yours.