I don’t know if you are keen on walking but I am. I love the gentle rhythm of a measured plod and the slow passage through a landscape. I particularly delight in the all the things I can see or touch, and the smells: funny bumbling beetles, fluid sjongololos with over-countable, tickly legs like the ones we had in our garden when I was a child, damp earth, curious pebbles and jewel drops of water trapped in the hairs of long grasses.
What thrills me most of all is finding familiar flowers in the wild. Most of us grow South African plants without even knowing that they are ours, especially when there’s been a commercial coup and other countries have taken over and hybridized our own local stuff. Take all the dazzling geraniums the Swiss cultivate in their window boxes – originally ours (and actually Pelargonium, not really geranium at all)! And Los Angeles’ official tree (the coral or Erythrina caffra) and flower (Strelitzia reginae) – both ours! And topping the list of most popular flowers for bridal bouquets – Zantedeschia (the Arum lily) and Freesia – home grown bulbs from the Western Cape!
Countless other familiar and much loved bulbs are South African. The long list can be roughly divided along three lines according to rainfall: winter, summer and year-round. Appropriate for now, seeing that our winter weather is finally here in no uncertain terms, are the winter-growing bulbs most of which grow naturally in the Western Cape. In the summer months they lie dormant when conditions are hot, dry and harsh. When the temperatures drop and the soil cools they produce new vegetative growth (that’s why we planted in the autumn) followed by very rapid development in the winter months when the weather is wet. Come spring, they are set to burst into flower, just as we really need cheering up after what always seems like endless cold.
Luckily for us, most of our prettiest winter bulbs are perfectly happy in gardens all over our country. The trick is to try to copy the conditions they like best: a sunny aspect, perfect drainage (in the wild most of them occur in nutrient-poor soils which drain rapidly), and damp soil but not a soggy swamp in which they will rot. (Drainage can be improved by mixing the soil with lots of compost and some sand. A slightly sloping site is ideal too as it will allow for good water runoff.)
So, here’s what I think I shall do this winter. When the weather is really wicked, I’m going to do my best to tell myself that spring comes quickly in our land of sunshine and in no time at all my bulbs are going to be beaming at me from all the sunny spots in my rather shady garden.
Furthermore, I aim to spend some time planning my summer garden. I’m going to buy all the prettiest gardening magazines and while I’m lying low, I shall page through my favourite gardening books and browse around on the internet. I shall dream a lot and entertain very beneficial visions of the summer bulbs I love (more about those in the months to come).
And if I am lucky, I shall treat myself come spring to some walks along the wild paths of the Cape where I shall be on the lookout for Babiana (baboon flowers), Bulbinella (cat’s tails), Ixia (wand flowers), Gladiolus, Lachenalia (Cape cowslips), Ornithogalum (chincherinchees), Sparaxis (harlequin flowers), Tritonia (blazing stars), Veltheimia (forest lilies) and Watsonia. And when I see them out there or in the gardens around me, I shall be reminded all over again of how wondrous and perfect flowers are, a perpetual miracle and free gift of our Blue Planet.
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