Ledebouria burkei subsp. burkei
Ledebouria burkei (Baker) J.C.Manning & Goldblatt subsp. burkei
Common names: brown African hyacinth (Eng.)
Dwarf bulbous plant usually with leaves pressed to the ground or presented close to the ground. The leaves are brownish-green and usually deep red underneath. The short mostly erect flower spike produces tiny scented flowers in early spring.
Dwarf deciduous bulbous plants 30 to 100 mm high, usually occurring as solitary individuals or in small groups of a few plants. Each plant produces 1 or 2 broad, oval leaves, which may be appressed to the soil or variously spreading. The leaves are sessile (not having a stalk), with a crenulate (minutely wavy) margin, dark green to greenish brown, spotted or plain above and usually deep red underneath, or spotted and blotched with red patterns on a paler green background.
A short, stout, erect flower spike, 30-60 mm high, usually shorter than the leaves, is produced in spring, often before the leaves emerge. The flower spike bears 15 to 30 small whitish to brownish buds, which develop a wine-red to brownish colouring when the flowers mature. The individual florets (small flowers) barely open when mature, and often only a small pore is visible on the open flowers. After the flowers are pollinated, the green to brownish seed capsules develop quickly (within a few weeks) and split to release the small, dark, blackish-brown, glossy, wrinkled seeds.
This species is very variable, especially in leaf character, and can be easily confused with other members of the section Drimiopsis. Ledebouria burkei is characterized by the broad, oval leaves which are completely deep red or mottled and blotched with red underneath.
The brown African Hyacinth is widespread across a large natural range and is not threatened in its natural habitat; it has been assessed as Least Concern (LC) the in Red List of South African plants.
Distribution and habitat
This species is known from an extensive range where it is seldom common. It is mostly found on the Highveld in grassland but also occurs in savanna. It grows out in the open or is hidden under bushes and amongst rocks.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was first described by botanist John Gilbert Baker (1834-1920) as Drimiopsis burkei in 1870 from a specimen collected near Pretoria by botanist and plant collector Joseph Burke (1812–1873), after whom the species was named. The genus Drimiopsis was reduced to a section within the larger genus Ledebouria in 2004, by the South African taxonomist Dr. John Manning et al.
The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). South Africa has 58 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, east and northeast Africa and into India.
As is the case with most ledebourias, there is no documented information on the specific ecology of Ledebouria burkei.
Porcupines are known to dig out and eat the bulbs of several species of Ledebouria including L. burkei and large ungulates have been observed to browse the leaves. The brownish-green leaf colouration and maculation may aid in camouflaging the plants where they often occur amongst leaf litter, thus protecting them from herbivory.
This species possesses typical Drimiopsis-type flowers in which the outer tepals (petals) only open slightly and do not become reflexed, while the inner tepals remain closed even when the flowers are mature. This distinction can be used to distinguish the Section Drimiopsis from the other two Sections Ledebouria and Resnova. Observations have been made of various pollinators including small solitary bees, honey bees as well as small flies and wasps visiting the flowers when they are open. The visiting pollinators need to physically open the inner three tepals (petals) in order to gain access to the center of the flower where the pollen and nectar is located. The flowers are strongly hyacinth scented especially in the warmer parts of the day. The inflorescences are mostly erect sometimes becoming somewhat flaccid (floppy) with age as they elongate, mostly when in fruit. The seed is tiny (1.5 mm) black and roundish with one flattened surface and a wrinkled seed coat. Venter (1993) suggests that Ledebouria seeds may be distributed by water wash, which is most likely after heavy thunderstorms, which are frequent across the areas where the species occurs.
There are no known or recorded uses specifically of the brown African hyacinth. The genus Ledebouria generally has been cited as having been used medicinally for various purposes including pregnancy, diarrhoea, influenza, backache, skin irritations, wound treatment as well as lumbago. The genus is also reported as being poisonous, although it is also reported that Bushmen ate the bulbs of certain species, including L. revoluta and L. apertiflora. However, these may have been cooked or prepared in some manner to destroy the toxins, which is not specifically documented. Despite the fact that porcupines and some large ungulates have been recorded as eating the bulbs and leaves respectively, the entire genus should be regarded as being poisonous as a precaution.
Growing Ledebouria burkei subsp. burkei
The brown African hyacinth is easily cultivated, they are ideally suited to containers due to their small size. Bulbs should be maintained outdoors in terracotta pots in semi-shade, in a warm, summer-rainfall climate.
Plant the bulbs in humus-rich loam soil or a well-drained potting medium rich in organic material, with some sifted well-aged kraal (cattle) manure or mature compost added. Watering should be limited to the warm summer growing season. Pots should be allowed to be completely dry out during the winter rest period. Plants can withstand cold temperatures in winter, providing the soil is kept completely dry and the bulbs are dormant.
The pots should be moved out of the rain during the dormant winter season, and kept in a dry position with good air movement. Summer growth is initiated in spring (September to October) by the onset of warmer temperatures or light rain. Emergence of the flowers is usually simultaneous with the leaves, however, under drier conditions the flowers may emerge before the leaves. Watering can commence as soon as the leaves break through the soil surface.
In cultivation, adult plants can become afflicted with scale insect and mealy bug (including on the roots) especially if the cultural conditions are not ideal. Both of these maladies can be managed with contact or systemic insecticides. Ants will often bring and spread such infestations and as such it is best to manage ant populations in the area where the plants are grown.
Ledebouria burkei is easily propagated from fresh seed (seed cannot be stored for longer than 1 year). Seed should be sown in spring or summer. Sow seed in pots or trays, on a finely sifted surface of the same growing medium. Cover with a fine layer of approx. 2–3 mm of the sifted medium. Water weekly and keep in a warm and protected position out of direct sunlight. Seeds usually germinate within 2–3 weeks, after which watering should be reduced depending on rainfall. Bulblets can be allowed to remain in their natal container for the first year, after which they can be planted out into individual or community pots. Flowering can begin at 2 to 3 years from seed.
- Baker, J.G. 1870. Monograph of Scilla: sections Ledebouria and Drimiopsis. Sanders’ Refugium Botanicum 3: 1–18.
- Hankey, A.J. 2019. Proposed English common names for African hyacinths (genus Ledebouria). Plantlife SA, Vol 47:7 https://plantlifesouthafrica.blogspot.com/
- Manning, J.C., Goldblatt, P. & Fay, M.F. 2004. A revised generic synopsis of Hyacinthaceae in sub-Saharan Africa, based on molecular evidence, including new combinations and the new tribe Pseudoprospereae. Edinburgh Journal of Botany 60: 533–568.
- Raimondo, D. et al. 2009. Red list of South African plants. Strelitzia 25. SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute), Pretoria.
- Venter, S. 1993. A revision of the genus Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
- Wikipedia. Joseph Burke (Botanist) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Burke_(botanist). Accessed 25 January 2021
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Brown, Red, White
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy