Eucomis comosa (Houtt.) Wehrh.
Common names: slender pineapple flower (Eng.); krulkoppie, pynappellelie (Afr.); ubuhlungu-becanti (Zul. and Xho.)
This is one of the sweet-scented species in the genus Eucomis, which is one of the reasons why it is such a popular garden plant. Like other pineapple flowers, this bulb has wavy margined leaves and an inflorescence that resembles a pineapple. The species Eucomis comosa has two distinct varieties: var. comosa and var. striata. They are different in distribution and appearance, although they may respond similarly in horticulture.
Eucomis comosa is a deciduous, summer-growing bulb, that grows up to 1.2 m tall, including the flower stalk. The firm bright green leaves are between 200–900 × 30–150 mm, and have purple streaks underneath. The sweet-scented, cream-coloured flowers with a purple ovary, are carried on a stout, green, hollow stalk, in mid to late summer (Dec. –Mar.). The inflorescence is topped by a tuft of leaf-like bracts, which are relatively small in this species.
The variety comosa flowers are usually white, or greenish yellow, but are sometimes pink, or purplish, with a purple ovary. It grows between 200 and 600 mm tall. The leaf undersides have purple spots at the base. It has different forms in cultivation, and the leaves can be quite variable in colour, from light green to a dark burgundy.
The other variety, striata, has greenish yellow flowers. It grows up to 1.2 m and has long strap-like leaves with a wavy margin. Whether or not it has a purple margin on the leaves, depends on where it grows: the ones in full sun will have purple margins and the ones in shaded areas will not. Unlike Eucomis comosa var. comosa, it has purple stripes rather than spots on the backs of the leaves and a spotted flower spike.
The conservation status of Eucomis comosa is Least Concern (LC), thus not threatened in its natural habitat. The status of the varieties has not been assessed as yet. Species of Eucomis are known to have medicinal properties. Eucomis comosa is commonly traded in the Eastern Cape traditional markets and not much of it can be found in the wild. It has been recorded in the Durban traditional medicine markets and it may occasionally occur in the Johannesburg markets (it hasn’t been positively identified there yet). Even though it is sold in small quantities, Dold & Cocks (2002) listed it as the 58th most common species in the Eastern Cape markets. The population of this species has probably declined, but the extent and time frames are not known. It is highly possible that var. striata, with its limited distribution in KwaZulu-Natal (an extent of occurrence of ± 14 1000 km²) and due to harvesting for the medicinal plant trade, is more vulnerable than var. comosa.
Distribution of var. comosa (left) and var. striata (right)
Distribution and habitat
Throughout the whole world, Eucomis comosa naturally only occurs in South Africa, and only in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces. It grows on grassy hillsides, in swamps, and inland.
Eucomis comosa var. comosa and var. striata occur in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces, where the former grows in both dry and damp areas and the latter grows in swamps.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Eucomis is derived from the Greek word eukomos, meaning ‘beautiful hair’ or ‘topknot’, referring to the crown of leafy bracts. The word comosa means ‘hairy tufts’.
Eucomis is a member of the Hyacinthaceae (hyacinth family), which is a family of perennial bulbous herbs consisting of ± 46 genera and ± 900 species found in Africa, Eurasia and North America, but most richly represented in southern Africa and in the Mediterranean region to southwest Asia. Related species known to South African gardeners, include Merwilla plumbea (previously known as Scilla natalensis), Schizocarphus nervosus (previously known as Scilla nervosa) and Ledebouria species. The genus Eucomis consists of approximately 12 species that occur in southern Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi. About 4 species occur in the Drakensberg region. Eucomis species are commonly known as pineapple plants because their inflorescences resemble pineapples.
The sweet smell of E. comosa flowers attracts Pompilid wasps and bees, which visit to feed on nectar and pollen resulting in pollination. Once the flowers are pollinated, they close and slowly turn dark brown to almost black. Once the capsules have dried, they open and the black seeds are dispersed by wind.
These Eucomis are adapted to a summer rainfall climate, with frost in winter. They can survive the frost by shedding their above-ground parts as they go through a dormant stage throughout winter to survive the cold conditions and re-sprout again in late spring.
Some grassland plants need fire to trigger flowering or flower better after veld fires, this might be the same with these pineapple flowers, although it has not been proven yet.
Eucomis species are commonly known for their medicinal anti-inflammatory properties and are, therefore, used in traditional medicinal treatments. E. comosa is used to treat rheumatism.
It can also be used as a border plant or planted en masse adding a different look to the garden. It also provides a long-lasting cut flower, florists can attest to that.
Growing Eucomis comosa
Eucomis can be propagated from seeds, offsets and leaf cuttings. For container cultivations, bulbs grow well in deep, 250 mm diameter pots.
In general, the best way to propagate bulbous plants in masses, is by seed, as they mostly produce a lot of seeds. Furthermore, if seeds are sown at the correct time of the year, they immediately adapt to their surroundings. Sow seeds in spring in a well-drained soil mixture and they will flower during the third season. Seeds should germinate in about 4–6 weeks.
Bulbs on the other hand, once they are removed from different climatic zones they take time to acclimatise. Split the offsets from the parent plant during the dormant season (preferably late winter), and they will quickly develop into independent plants.
Collect leaf cuttings during the active growing season and plant in a well-drained soil mixture. In time, they will produce roots and bulbs, but this is rather slow compared to other propagation methods.
E. comosa can be planted in pockets in rockeries in semi-shade or full sun. They should be given enough time to fully establish when planted en masse. As with most bulbs, the golden rule is well-drained soils. Pineapple flowers excel in sunny areas; they will still bloom very well in shade, they just need adequate moisture. They may lose the purple markings on the leaves when planted in shade. Since they go dormant in winter, it is also advisable to plant them amongst evergreen groundcovers so that flowerbeds do not look empty in winter.
Eucomis species have a large, flat-bottomed bulb that should be planted in spring, near the surface, with their necks peeking above ground level. During their third season, transplant young bulbs out into the garden, preferably in a well-drained soil with well-rotted compost. Even though bulbs become dormant in winter, irrigation is advisable. Species of Eucomis are rarely bothered by pest or diseases.
- Crouch, N. 2010. An adaptation of Reyneke’s key to the genus Eucomis. PlantLife No. 39 & .40
- Duncan, G.D. 2010. Grow bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Du Plessis, N. & Duncan, G. 1989. Bulbous plants of southern Africa, a guide to their cultivation and propagation. Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- Eliovson, S. 1967. Bulbs for the gardener in the southern hemisphere. Howard Timmins, Cape Town.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Notten, A. 2002. Eucomis autumnalis (Mill.) Chitt (Hyacinthaceae). PlantZAfrica. Internet. http://pza.sanbi.org/eucomis-autumnalis
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers Kwazulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Zonneveld, B.J.M. & Duncan, G.D. 2010. Genome sizes of Eucomis L'Hér. (Hyacinthaceae) and a description of the new species Eucomis grimshawii G.D.Duncan & Zonneveld. Plant Systematics and Evolution 284: 99–109.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: The author thanks Neil Crouch and Graham Grieve for allowing the use of their images.
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: Pink, Cream
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Average