Ledebouria ensifolia (Eckl.) S.Venter & T.J.Edwards
Common names: Eastern Cape African hyacinth (Eng.)
This is a fairly common species found mainly in the Eastern Cape Province; it is easily confused with several other species of Ledebouria, be sure to look closely before making an identification.
Bulbous plants 100–150 mm high, occurring singly or in small groups; bulb cylindrical, covered with persistent dark brown, papery, dead leaf base sheaths; roots fusiform (spindle-shaped); leaves several (usually about 5–7) deciduous, green, usually spotted, narrowly triangular, tapering to a point; some of the leaves may be pressed flat on the soil, but this not always the case. 1 to 3 inflorescences are produced in summer (November to February) oriented outwards from between the leaves, curving upwards apically, bearing numerous small, inconspicuous, green to purplish green florets (small flowers). The individual florets are usually whitish to greenish pink with a darker green median stripe; the 6 stamens have very conspicuous violet-coloured filaments (stalks); florets are comprised of 6, recurved, acute tepals (petals); florets of this species are usually nodding and urn-shaped being broader at the base and narrowing towards the apex. Pedicels (floret stalks) are often pale lilac or white on the buds and florets higher up the raceme, turning green at or after flowering. Flowers are quickly followed by green, swollen, 3-chambered fruits which split to reveal small, glossy, black seeds.
This species can easily be confused with several other ledebourias, most notably L. revoluta and L. apertiflora. The cylindrical bulbs with fusiform roots and flask-shaped florets can be used to distinguish this from other superficially similar species.
This species is listed as Least Concern (LC), which means it is not considered to be threatened in its natural habitat.
Distribution and habitat
This species is mostly distributed across the Eastern Cape Province with outliers in the Western and Northern Cape. The species is mostly found in drier vegetation types, including Karoo scrub, succulent thicket, fynbos and grassland.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was initially placed in the genus Drimia (1830) from a specimen collected in the Uitenhage area by the famous early explorer and plant collector Carl Zeyher. The species was also named under several other names by other botanists and for a long time was known by the name Drimia ludwigii, until it was moved to the genus Scilla under the name S. ensifolia, in 1908, where many other species in Ledebouria were also placed at that time. It was only moved to the genus Ledebouria in 2003 by S. Venter & T.J. Edwards.
The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). The specific name ensifolia meaning ‘sword-shaped’, from the Latin ensis, meaning ‘sword’ and folia, meaning ‘leaves’, is in reference to the shape of the leaves. South Africa has 58 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, east and northeast Africa and into India.
There is little specific documented information on the ecology of Ledebouria ensifolia. Porcupines are known to dig out and eat the bulbs of several species of Ledebouria and large ungulates have been observed to browse the leaves. Venter (2003) reports a slight sweet scent from the flowers; he also mentioned his observation that plants closer to the coast have narrower leaves than those from higher altitudes.
The flowers are open and cup-shaped with their pollen openly presented, which suggests that the flowers are opportunistically pollinated by most visiting insects. In the wild many different insects can be seen visiting the flowers. The inflorescences are mostly decumbent (spreading outwards and then curving upwards towards the distal end) this may have something to do with optimizing accessibility of the flowers to attract terrestrial pollinators. The seed is small, black and roundish with a wrinkled surface. Venter (1993) suggests that Ledebouria seeds may be distributed by water wash, which is likely after heavy thunderstorms, which are frequent across the areas where the species occurs.
The genus Ledebouria has been cited as having been used medicinally for 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 some large ungulates do browse the leaves, the entire genus should be regarded as being poisonous as a precaution.
Growing Ledebouria ensifolia
The Eastern Cape African hyacinth is very easily cultivated in gardens and containers. They are best grown outdoors in gardens or in terracotta pots, in full sun, in a warm summer climate. Direct sunlight brings out the darkest spots on the leaves. The bulbs should be planted in sandy, loam soil or well-drained, sandy organic potting medium, with sifted kraal (cattle) manure or well-aged compost added. Although the species occurs in summer, all year and winter rainfall zones they tend to follow a summer growth cycle and as such, watering should be done mainly during the summer growing season. This species prefers a drier growing regime and should never be overwatered. The pots should be dried out during the dry winter rest period. They prefer a warm growing season but can withstand very cold temperatures in winter, providing the soil is kept completely dry and the plants are dormant. During the dry winter dormancy period, the pots should be moved out of the rain and placed in a dry, cool area with good air movement. Watering can commence at the onset of warmer weather (August to October). Adult plants can become afflicted with scale insect and mealy bug especially if the cultural conditions are not ideal. Both of these pests can be managed with a contact or systemic insecticide; ants will often bring and spread such infestations and as such, it is best to manage ant populations where the plants are housed.
Propagation from seed is the best method of producing new plants. Seed must be sown fresh (cannot be stored) in spring or summer, in deep seed trays filled with the sifted potting mixture detailed above. The seed can be sown on a firmly tamped surface and pressed into the soil, then lightly covered with the same mixture, approximately 2–3 mm deep. The seed trays should be kept in a bright, warm position out of direct sunlight and kept damp for between 2 to 3 weeks, until germination has commenced. Once the seedlings have emerged, watering can be reduced. The seedlings can be pricked out into community pots or individual containers after their first year of growth. Repotting should be done shortly before the onset of warmer temperatures. Flowering size bulbs can be attained after 3 to 5 years.
- Hankey, A.J. 2019. Proposed English common names for African hyacinths (genus Ledebouria). Plantlife SA, Vol 47:7 https://plantlifesouthafrica.blogspot.com/
- Venter, S. 1993. A revision of the genus Ledebouria in South Africa. M.Sc. Thesis. University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
- Venter, S. 2008. Synopsis of the genus Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. Herbertia 62: 85-155
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgments: images of Ledebouria ensifolia in habitat by Marion Maclean, Ismael Ebrahim and James Deacon from their observations on iNaturalist.org.
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Green, Purple, White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy