Ledebouria comptonii (U.Müll.-Doblies & D. Müll.-Doblies) J.C.Manning & Goldblatt
Common names: Compton’s African Hyacinth
A small and attractive species which proliferates to form dense stands, with brightly coloured flowers produced en-masse in early spring. The species is well suited to cultivation and quickly fills out any container that it is grown in.
Dwarf bulbous plants forming dense stands by producing underground stolons (specialised stems) and young bulbs at the base of the mother bulb. The small bulb is approx. 25 mm long and 20 mm wide. The 3 to 5, lanceolate elliptic leaves are produced in summer and can be up to 70 mm long and 10 mm wide, with a short petiole-like leaf base. The leaves are dull green above, with short stiff erect hairs located on top of raised papillae; hairless, smooth and plain green below or with some reddish patch-like patterns; unspotted but may have some banding towards the base of the short petiole-like leaf base.
Flowers are produced in profusion in early spring (September to October). Each bulb produces 1 or 2 elongated inflorescences, which can be up to 120 mm long, erect at first becoming floppy with age. The small, bright purple, individual flowers (florets) are tightly clustered toward the tip of the reddish flower stalk and each has a purple pedicel (floret stalk). Each floret is comprised of 6 elongated, purple tepals (petals), the inner series of tepals have yellow nectar guides or markings near their tips. Typical of the section Drimiopsis the flowers are scented and only open partially towards the apex while the inner tepals remain connate (touching) to cover the inner parts of the flower. The seeds are tiny, wrinkled and dark brown to almost black.
Ledebouria comptonii has been assessed as Least Concern (LC) for the Red List of South African plants, the species is not regarded as being under any significant threat in its natural range.
Distribution and habitat
The species occurs in seasonally inundated shallow peat pans on south facing granite outcrops in a very limited area of eSwatini, and has to date not been recorded anywhere else.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
Ledebouria comptonii was first collected in 1984 and described in 1997, by the German husband and wife Botanist team Drs Ute and Dietrich Müller-Doblies. The species is named after the late botanist, Prof. Robert Harold Compton (1886–1979), who was the director of the National Botanic Gardens (Kirstenbosch). He later retired to his farm in eSwatini, where the species was discovered. The species was originally described as Drimiopsis comptonii, however the genus Drimiopsis was combined into Ledebouria in 2004 by Prof John Manning, who, in 2012, also created two sections in Ledebouria to accommodate the closely allied groups, section Drimiopsis and section Resnova, that were formerly recognised as separate genera.
The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). South Africa has 61 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, eastern and northeast Africa and into India. The genus Ledebouria is a member of the Hyacinth Family and is well represented especially across the eastern, summer rainfall parts of South Africa. L. comptonii is most closely related to L. atropurpurea from which it differs by the bright purple flowers and hairless scape (inflorescence stalk) and longer pedicels (flower stalks).
As with most plants in this section of the genus, the flowers only open partially, requiring pollinators to physically open the tepals to gain access to the pollen and nectar. This limitation reduces the number of pollinators which are able to pollinate the hyacinth-scented flowers. Mostly small solitary bees and some flies have been observed visiting the flowers. After pollination the swollen, green seed capsules develop rapidly. The small seeds are released by the bursting and shriveling seed capsule.
There is no record of this species being utilized locally by humans, there is also very little known about the ecology of the species.
Growing Ledebouria comptonii
Ledebouria comptonii is exceedingly rewarding and easy to cultivate, quickly multiplying to fill out any container; it is ideally suited to be maintained in pots or shallow trays due to its dwarf size. The bulbs prefer a humic, rich, peaty potting soil, with sand added to provide a well-drained base. They should be kept in full sun and watered generously between rain showers in the summer growing season. During the dormant period in winter, the containers should be allowed to dry out, with only an occasional light surface watering to maintain some soil humidity. The emergence of the flowers in spring usually precedes the leaves and coincides with the increased soil temperatures in spring, at which time watering can recommence.
Propagation of this species is most successful from fresh seed, sown in summer. Seed can be sown directly into pots or trays, filled with the sifted growing mixture and pressed lightly. The seed can be covered with a thin, 2 mm layer of fine sand or the same sifted potting mix. Germination is quick and can occur between 3 to 4 weeks. Seedlings can be left in their natal containers for up to 3 years or until they become too congested and then should be planted out in small clusters or as individuals into pots. Seedlings are susceptible to mealy bug below soil level, which can be treated using a systemic insecticide; damping off can occur during early establishment of the seedlings and precautions should be implemented in the form of a systemic fungicide.
- Hankey, A.J. 2019. Proposed English common names for African hyacinths (genus Ledebouria). Plantlife SA, Vol 47:7 https://plantlifesouthafrica.blogspot.com/
- Klopper, R.R. & Victor, J.E. 2005. Ledebouria comptonii (U.Müll.-Doblies & D.Müll.-Doblies) J.C.Manning & Goldblatt. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2020.1. Accessed on 2021/11/14
- 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.
- Manning, J.C. & Goldblatt, P. 2012. Hyacinthaceae. New combinations in Ledebouria. Bothalia 42 (1): 47–48.
- Müller-Doblies, U. & Müller-Doblies, D. 1997. A partial revision of the tribe Massonieae (Hyacinthaceae). Feddes Repertorium 108 (1–-2): 49–96.
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
- Wikipedia. Robert Harold Compton. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Harold_Compton. Accessed 7 July 2021.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: Martin Heigan is acknowledged for images, all other images by the author.
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Mpumalanga
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Purple
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy