Ledebouria luteola Jessop.
Common names: highveld African hyacinth
Unusual in cultivation, this bulbous plant, with attractively spotted leaves, can make an interesting collector’s item or curiosity. The species is widespread and very common in grassland, occurring in the highveld regions of the northern provinces of South Africa.
Solitary or occasionally forming small groups, this deciduous, bulbous plant produces triangular to strap-shaped, somewhat semi-fleshy, green leaves, with pronounced purple-brown spots and markings. The bulbs are pear-shaped and covered with membranous, pale brown, papery outer layers, with a pronounced bulb neck of up to 20–30 mm long.
The flowers are produced in spring on unbranched spikes bearing numerous single flowers arranged along the central peduncle (main stalk), each on a short pedicel (flower stalk). Several inflorescences are produced simultaneously in late winter and early spring (August–September in South Africa). Inflorescences are decumbent (hanging outward along the ground).
The small, pinkish green flowers have strongly recurved tepals (petals) and violet filaments (anther stalks). The seeds are produced following the flowers, in leathery, green capsules, which split open to reveal the small, black, drop-shaped, wrinkled seeds.
Least Concern (LC). This species is locally abundant and not assessed as threatened on the Red List of South African Plants. The most significant threat is habitat loss due to rapid urban expansion, mostly in the Gauteng Province.
Distribution and habitat
This species is widespread and very abundant in many areas, where it grows in various types of grassland in the highveld regions of North West, Limpopo, Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga Provinces of South Africa.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was first described by J.P. Jessop in 1970 in his taxonomic studies on the genus. The genus Ledebouria is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). The species name luteola, which means ‘yellowish’ in Latin, is in reference to the pale yellowish colour of the live bulb scales.
South Africa has 39 species of Ledebouria. The genus is distributed across Africa, India and Madagascar, with the centre of species diversity in the eastern parts of southern Africa.
This species is most often confused with Ledebouria revoluta, to which it is very similar, however, L. luteola produces copious threads in the leaves when they are torn, whereas L. revoluta also produces these threads, but not nearly as abundant and conspicuous.
There is not much documented about the specific ecology of this species; the threads in the leaves may serve as a deterrent to herbivores from browsing too many of the leaves; Venter (1993) notes that the leaves are browsed by Common Duiker (Sylvicapra grimmea).
The flowers are open and cup-shaped which suggests that they are opportunistically pollinated by most visiting insects. Honey bees have been seen visiting the flowers in cultivation, along with smaller solitary bees. The decumbent inflorescences may facilitate pollination by walking insects, such as ants.
The seed is small and roundish and it is suggested in one text that they are distributed by water wash, which is likely after heavy thunderstorms, which are frequent in the areas where the species occurs.
This species is adapted to grassland vegetation types, which experience burning on a regular basis. Ledebouria luteola is able to survive the fire by going completely dormant during the cold and dry highveld winters, where the bulb is protected under the soil. The flowers are usually produced very early in the season, usually before the first rain and also before the leaves emerge, this may provide an advantage to attract pollinators when there is little else flowering and before the grasses start to grow and shade the plants from pollinators. Because of this early flowering habit, the seed can often be developed and dispersed by the time the rains arrive, giving the seedlings a full rainy season to establish before the onset of the following dry winter season.
Although this species has no specific citations as being used by people, ledebourias have 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 eat the bulbs of certain species (L. apertiflora and L. revoluta).
Growing Ledebouria luteola
Ledebouria luteola can be easily cultivated in pots or in the garden using an organic rich, loam soil with good drainage. The addition of sifted kraal (cattle) manure, bone meal and coarse sand, is beneficial. Plants prefer a warm summer climate with adequate watering in summer. During the dormant winter period, plants should be kept completely dry. Growing the plants in full sun will ensure the darkest and most pronounced leaf markings. 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 (September to October in South Africa), by which time the plants have usually already commenced flowering.
Propagation from seed is the best method of producing more plants. Seed must be sown fresh. Sow the seeds in spring or summer, in seed trays filled with a sifted organic loam, with some sifted manure and sand added to facilitate good drainage. The seed can be sown on a firmly tamped surface and lightly covered with the same mixture approximately 3 mm deep. The 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 remain in the seedling tray for one year and planted out at the beginning of their second growing season. Flowering size bulbs can be attained after 3 to 4 years. Tremendous variation in leaf size, shape and markings occurs in the natural populations of this species, therefore selection of the most attractive forms for cultivation, will be beneficial.
- Dictionary of botanical epithets. http://www.winternet.com/~chuckg/dictionary.html. Accessed 17 July 2016.
- Hankey, A. 2011. Ledebouria Roth. PlantZAfrica. Internet 5 pp. http://pza.sanbi.org/ledebouria-genus, accessed 22 June 2016.
- Hankey, A.J. & Victor, J.E. 2005. Ledebouria luteola Jessop. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2015.1. Accessed on 2016/07/17
- 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. 1993. A revision of the genus Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. Unpublished M.Sc. thesis, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.
- Venter, S. 2008. Synopsis of the genus Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. Herbertia 62: page range?.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: Green, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy