Cyanella hyacinthoides Royen ex L.
Common names: lady’s hand (Eng.); blouraaptol, dolraap, klipraap, raap, raapdol, raaptol, raaptoluintjie, raapuintjie, tolraap (Afr.)
Cyanella hyacinthoides is a drought tolerant, winter-growing geophyte with attractive, uniquely shaped flowers, restricted to the winter-rainfall region.
A corm-bearing plant growing up to 400 mm high. The leaves, up to 20 mm long, are very variable ranging from suberect and slender, to flatter and broader, growing in a basal tuft or rosette. The margins are somewhat wavy. The attractive, pale to deep mauve or blue, rarely white, fragrant flowers have 6 stamens of which the upper 5 filaments are arched and fused for part of their length. These anthers are small and tubular, whereas the lower stamen is large. These distinctive flowers are borne on a long, loose raceme in winter to early summer (August to November). Up to 20 open flowers can be present on an inflorescence. The fruit is a loculicidal capsule.
Cyanella pentheri and C. hyacinthoides are closely related and easily confused, and have been treated as the same species in the past. They are alike in their inflorescence, although the flowers in C. pentheri are typically paler, mostly white to pale mauve, but they differ strikingly in their foliage. Cyanellas have a rudimentary, scale-like leaf, called a cataphyll, that precedes the foliage leaves, enclosing them and sheathing the base of the stem or with a short leafy blade. In C. pentheri the cataphyll is marked with a network of purple lines (purple-reticulate), whereas in C. hyacinthoides, the cataphyll is usually pale and rarely with purple lines. Furthermore, the leaves of C. pentheri are linear, mostly 1–4 mm wide and the margins of the bottom half of the leaf have obvious, 2–3 mm long shaggy hairs but are smooth on the top half of the leaf, whereas those of C. hyacinthoides are linear to lance-shaped, mostly 4–15 mm wide and the margins are smooth, but if they are hairy, they have shorter hairs, up to 1 mm long, along the entire length of the leaf.
Cyanella hyacinthoides is assessed as Least Concern (LC) according to SANBI`s Red List of South African plants. The population of the species is widely spread, it is very common and not endangered because it is tolerant of disturbance and thrives on old lands and along road verges (Manning & Goldblatt 2012).
In Western Australia Cyanella hyacinthoides is reportedly naturalized and grows in black peaty sand on dunes.
Distribution and habitat
Cyanella hyacinthoides is widely distributed from just north of Steinkopf in the Northern Cape, southwards through Namaqualand, into the Western Cape, as far east as the Gouritz River, from near sea level to over 1 200 m in altitude. It has also been recorded along the Roggeveld escarpment and southwards to Matjiesfontein but is absent from the Tanqua Karoo basin and Little Karoo, apart from a single collection south of Oudtshoorn at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains. The species is confined to the southern African winter-rainfall region within which annual precipitation may vary from less than 100 mm in the parts of the Northern Cape to more than 2 500 mm in parts of the Western Cape (Fuggle & Ashton 1979, Venter et al. 1986).
This plant is frost sensitive and favours, loamy or clay soils, where it is most often found growing in renosterveld and succulent karoo veld types. It has also been collected on granite, sandstone and limestone substrates.
In climates where there is more than just light frost, the plants can be grown in containers and taken outside when all danger of frost has passed.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Cyanella is derived from the Greek kyanos, meaning ‘blue’ and –ella, the diminutive referring to the small, blue flowers of Cyanella hyacinthoides, the first species to be described. The specific epithet hyacinthoides means ‘hyacinth-like’; it comes from the genus name Hyacinthus and the Greek suffix -oides, which indicates ‘like’ or ‘resembling’, and refers particularly to the flower colour.
The English common name lady’s hand is represented by the yellow stamens; complete with fingernails.
In 1772 the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, was the first person who recorded that the roasted corms are edible. Thunberg was a student of Carolus Linnaeus who established the practice of binomial nomenclature viz. the system of using genus and species names for plants. Thunberg also first noted the Afrikaans vernacular name raaptoluintjie which means ‘little turnip top onion’, probably derived from the turnip-like shape of the corm, or from the resemblance of the corm to a spinning top, because of its long neck.
The family Tecophilaeaceae comprises of 8 genera and about 25 species from California, Chile, and southern and tropical mainland Africa (Simpson & Rudall 1998). The reported occurrence of the family in Madagascar (Simpson & Rudall 1998) is based on Walleria paniculata Fritsch, a synonym of Dianella ensifolia (L.) DC. (Hemerocallidaceae). The family is best represented in Africa, where almost two thirds of the species are found. Cyanastrum Oliv. (3 spp.) and Kabuyea Brummitt (1 sp.) are strictly tropical, but Walleria J.Kirk (3 spp.), Eremiolirion J.C.Manning & F.Forest (1 sp.), and Cyanella Royen ex L. (9 spp. of which 7 occur in Namaqualand and 2 in the Little Karoo), are primarily distributed in subtropical and temperate southern Africa. Members of the family are perennial herbs with a cormous, usually tunicated rootstock, basal (rarely cauline) leaves, and long-lasting flowers, typically in racemose or paniculate, cymose inflorescences, but sometimes solitary and axillary. The flowers are actinomorphic or zygomorphic, with 3 + 3 petaloid tepals fused into a short tube adnate to the ovary, and 6 stamens, all fertile or some reduced to staminodes, with ± porose dehiscence. The ovary is inferior or semi-inferior and 3-carpellate, and matures into a loculicidal capsule (Simpson & Rudall 1998; Heywood et al. 2007).
The attractive genus Tecophilaeae consists of 2 species that occur in Chile, and are valued as container subjects.
The pleasantly scented flowers are buzz-pollinated, whereby the pollen is released through a pore at the tips of the anthers, but only when the bee pollinator buzzes its wings at a certain frequency.
When the seed capsule is ripe and splits open, the seeds are most probably dispersed by wind.
The deep-seated, tunicated corm is an adaptation for survival under arid conditions and possibly to deter the porcupines and francolins from digging them up.
The Nama people of Kamiesberg prepared the corms by roasting or boiling them in milk, the taste being reminiscent of mashed potatoes (Archer 1982). Cyanella hyacinthoides was a highly prized staple food. The corms if consumed raw, were said to cause flatulence, whereas the previous year’s growth remaining beneath the new corm was reputed to be toxic (Archer 1982). In the Cederberg, the corms are one of the most popular veld foods.
This geophyte does have horticultural potential, however, the plants are not available in the nursery trade because of the lack of seed availability, and perhaps because the seedlings develop slowly and the plants flower for the first time in their third year. It is drought tolerant and ideal for deep containers. Cyanella hyacinthoides and C. orchidiformis are prolific seeders under cultivation and can become invasive if not kept in check.
Growing Cyanella hyacinthoides
Propagate cyanellas by seed, off-sets and the removal of cormlets.
Sow seed in autumn (March) in a coarse, well-drained soil medium with equal parts of coarse river sand, industrial silica (sand) and well-rotted fine compost. Sprinkle the seeds evenly, but not too close together and cover with a thin layer of the same mixture (about as deep as the seed’s diameter), to provide support, moisture and drainage for the germinating seedlings. Once the seed has been sown, water with a fine mist sprayer. Germinating seeds need sufficient moisture, circulating air and optimum temperature and light conditions during their growth period. Place the seed tray in a warm, partially shaded place to protect the seedlings from changing temperatures and too much sun.
It takes about 3 to 4 weeks for fresh seeds to germinate. The slow-growing seedlings should be kept barely moist and allowed to become dry when the foliage dies in summer. The seedlings in the second season can be planted in individual containers and should be hardened off to reduce plant stress by exposing them to sunlight, wind and uneven temperatures. At the end of the second season of growth the seedlings are large enough to plant out. In the third year the seedlings generally flower.
When grown in containers, the corms frequently remain dormant for one or more growing season, a condition reduced by annual re-potting in autumn. Early summer-flowering forms need heavy drenching as the inflorescence emerge, to maintain simultaneous green leaf growth.
Increasing cyanella stocks can be done by separation of corm offsets and the removal of cormlets from subterranean stolons in summer after the foliage has died down. The cormels/cormlets can then be planted in a sharply drained medium, such as equal parts of coarse river sand, industrial (silica) sand and fine compost, with regular heavy drenching during the winter-growing and spring-flowering periods and being kept dry in summer so the corms can enjoy a resting period.
Liquid fertilizers with a high potassium but low nitrogen content can be given in early spring when flower growth commences.
As these plants are native of rather poor soils, overfeeding should be avoided.
Plant Cyanella hyacinthoides with companion plants such as Cleretum bellidiforme (bokbaaivygies) with their stunning flowers with very variable colours, including white, cream-coloured, yellow, salmon-coloured, orange, pink, mauve, magenta or red, sometimes with contrasting white, maroon, yellow or light orange bases, Drosanthemum speciosum (worcester vygie) with bright red flowers, Felicia filifolia (draaibossie) with its needle-like leaves, blue to mauve rays and a yellow disc flowers, Lobostemon echioides with its soft-silvery haired leaves and blue flowers, Malephora crocea var. crocea (vingerkanna) with its fat leaves and beautiful orange flowers, Nemesia affinis (leeubekkie) with racemes of white, blue, yellow or sometimes red flowers, with a lower lip that has a raised, cream-coloured to yellow palate and Scabiosa columbaria (bitterbos) with white to mauve flowers in heads.
These plants prefer a sunny spot for much of the day and are best suited for containers, in the front of sunny borders, a rock garden or flat dwellers can use window boxes on a sunny balcony.
The developing flower buds are sometimes attacked by aphids; use a soapy solution to control this, but the corms and leaves are seldom subject to pests and diseases.
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Karoo Desert National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: the author thanks Mahlatse Malemone for providing some of the information in this article.
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring
PH: Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Flower colour: Blue, Pink, Yellow, Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy