Ledebouria leptophylla (Baker) S.Venter
Common names: grass-leaved African hyacinth
A miniature and very well-hidden species, which is easily overlooked in the field because of its small size and grass-like leaves.
Dwarf bulbous plants, 50-100 mm high, with bluish green to green, mostly unspotted, narrow, deciduous leaves, from 1 to 5 mm wide, occasionally with a slight spiral twist; occurring as solitary individuals or in small groups of a few, loosely arranged bulbs. Solitary inflorescences are produced in spring and early summer (August to November), erect to spreading slightly outwards, from between the leaves, bearing numerous, small, whitish to pale purple, striped flowers. The individual florets (small flowers) are comprised of 6, strongly recurved tepals (petals). Flowers are soon followed by green, swollen, 3-chambered fruits, which split to reveal small, glossy, wrinkled, blackish brown seeds.
This species is most easily confused with Ledebouria minima, from which it differs by the usually glaucous as opposed to green leaves in L. minima. Furthermore, L. minima usually occur in dense aggregations, unlike in L. leptophylla, which are solitary or small clusters of a few plants. L. minima also produces very small flowers compared to L. leptophylla, as well as a dark coloured, wiry peduncle (main flower stalk).
This species is assessed as Least Concern (LC), which means it is not considered to be threatened in its natural habitat.
Distribution and habitat
This species occurs over a wide range, in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa. The species is usually found in open grassland or amongst rocky outcrops in grassland, and plants can often be found growing in grass tussocks.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
As with many members of the genus, this species was initially placed in the genus Scilla when it was first named by Baker in 1897, it was moved to the genus Ledebouria by S. Venter in his synopsis of the genus in 2008. The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). The specific name lepto- means ‘narrow’ and -phylla means ‘leaf’, presumably in reference to the narrow, usually grass-like leaves of this species.
South Africa has 58 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, eastern and northeastern Africa and into India.
There is no documented information on the specific ecology of Ledebouria leptophylla. 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. The dwarf habit and narrow grass-like leaves may enable the plants to escape being browsed by herbivores. The narrow leaves may effectively camouflage the plants, and may aid in eluding insects which could devour the leaves.
This species possesses typical Ledebouria-type flowers, which are open and cup-shaped, with their pollen openly presented, which suggests that the flowers are opportunistically pollinated by most visiting insects. The flowers, which have not been recorded as being scented, can be seen being visited by various different insects, including honey bees and solitary bees. The inflorescences are mostly erect to spreading at first, becoming more flaccid (floppy) with age; this may have something to do with optimizing visibility of the flowers to attract 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.
This species forms part of a group of grassland plants known as the pre-rain flora, plants that sprout and flower (and produce seed) after the long dry winter season, before the first rains fall. They do this by using stored water and nutrients in their underground storage organs (in this case bulbs). In so doing they are able to present their flowers to pollinators before the emergence of the grasses, which are so abundant in their habitat. Grasses are rain-dependent and can only begin to grow once the rains begin falling. Grasses grow quickly and soon obscure the Ledebouria (and other pre-rain flora) under a vigorous, grassy canopy, so they would be unlikely to have their flowers seen by pollinators. Furthermore, the pre-rain flora also disperse their seeds early in the season, giving their seeds the benefit of a full rainy season to germinate and establish under the soil before the next dry winter season, when the risk of fire is again at its highest.
The genus Ledebouria 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 some large ungulates do browse the leaves, the entire genus should be regarded as being poisonous as a precaution.
Growing Ledebouria leptophylla
The grass-leaved African hyacinth is very easily cultivated, although they are best suited to containers because of their miniature size. They are best grown outdoors, in terracotta pots, in full sun to semi-shade, in a temperate climate.
Plant the bulbs in sandy loam soil or a well-drained, sandy potting medium, rich in organic matter, with sifted, well-aged kraal (cattle) manure or mature compost added. Watering should be done mainly in the summer growing season. The pots should be dried out in the dry winter rest period. The plants prefer a cool summer growing season and can withstand very cold temperatures in winter, providing the soil is kept completely dry and the plants are dormant.
The pots should be moved out of any rain during the dormant winter season, and kept in a dry position with good air movement. Summer growth is initiated by the onset of warmer temperatures (August to October), emergence of the leaves is often preceded by the flowers. Watering can commence at this stage and thereafter.
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 a 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.
Ledebouria leptophylla is easily cultivated from fresh seed sown in spring or summer (seed cannot be stored for longer than 1 year). Sow seed on a finely sifted surface in of the same growing medium used for adult plants, in pots or trays. Press seeds lightly into the soil and 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 germinate within 2–3 weeks after which watering should be reduced. 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 2–3 years from seed.
- Hankey, A.J. 2019. Proposed English common names for African hyacinths (genus Ledebouria). Plantlife SA, Vol 47:7 https://plantlifesouthafrica.blogspot.com/
- Jessop, J.P. 1970. Studies in the bulbous Liliaceae in South Africa: 1. Scilla, Schizocarpus and Ledebouria. Journal of South African Botany 36(4): 233–266.
- Venter, S. 2008. Synopsis of the genus Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. Herbertia 62
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: Green, Purple, Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy