Ledebouria ovalifolia (Schrad.) Jessop
Common names: fynbos African hyacinth (Eng.)
This curious dwarf species has a restricted distribution mainly in the southern, western and Northern Cape. It makes a great pot plant where it quickly proliferates to fill any container.
Bulbous plants 100–150 mm high, with small, whitish bulbs and green, oval-shaped, mostly unspotted leaves, which can be erect, spreading or appressed to the soil surface. The characteristic flowers are easily recognizable from the erect to spreading stamens which are often half white and half violet, with purple anthers and pollen. Usually solitary inflorescences are produced in autumn (March to April) and early winter, when the bulbs are leafless or with partly emerged leaves, after a long, dry, summer dormant season. The individual florets (small flowers) are comprised of 6, recurved, pale purple to whitish tepals (petals), each with a vertical green median stripe. Flowers are followed after about 3–6 weeks by green, swollen, 3-chambered fruits, which split to reveal small, glossy, black seeds.
This species is not easily confused with other species of Ledebouria except L. cooperii which is a very variable entity. L. ovalifolia can be distinguished from L. cooperii by the exserted portion of the stamens which are often half white, half violet and the shorter and oval shape of the leaves, neither of which is not seen in L. cooperii. Furthermore, this species occurs in the southern Cape, which makes it unlikely to be confused with most other species of Ledebouria, which do not occur in the southern Cape.
This species is Red Listed as Least Concern (LC) which means it is not considered to be threatened in its natural habitat.
Distribution and habitat
The fynbos African hyacinth is endemic to South Africa; it is restricted to the southern Cape from Bettys’ Bay to Plettenberg Bay, and inland to the Laingsburg and Beaufort West area. It occurs in various different vegetation types, including fynbos and semi-arid karoo scrub. This is the only known Ledebouria species that occurs exclusively in a winter rainfall area; there are a few other species that do extend into winter rainfall areas, however, they also occur in summer or all-year rainfall areas.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was first collected on the Donker Hoek Mountain, Caledon, in the Western Cape in 1815 by the famous English explorer William John Burchell (1782–1863). It was initially named as Drimia ovalifolia in 1827, by the German botanist Dr Heinrich Adolf Shrader (1767–1836). It was moved to Scilla in 1930; it was also named from several other collections under different names, including as a Lachenalia. It was only in 1970 that it was first placed into Ledebouria by J.P. Jessop during his work on the family Hyacinthaceae.
The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). The specific name ovali- means ‘oval’ and -folia, means ‘leaf’; presumably in reference to the oval shape of the leaves of some, but not all forms of the species. South Africa has 58 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, east and northeast Africa and into India.
There is no documented information on the ecology of Ledebouria ovalifolia. 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 species is adapted to a winter rainfall regime unlike most Ledebouria species which follow a summer rainfall pattern. The plants are leafless during the hot, dry, summer months, flower in autumn and early winter before the leaves emerge, and are in full leaf during the winter rainy season in their natural habitat.
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 cultivation, many different insects can be seen visiting the flowers, which have not been recorded as being scented. 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.
No records could be located of this species having uses or cultural applications. 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 ovalifolia
The fynbos African hyacinth is very easily cultivated in gardens and containers. They are best grown outdoors in containers or in the garden in full sun, in a moderate to warm climate. The bulbs should be planted in sandy soil or a well-drained, sandy organic potting medium, with sifted kraal (cattle) manure or well-aged compost added. Watering should be done only in the winter growing season. The plants should be dried out in the dry summer rest period. They prefer a cool growing season and can withstand cold temperatures. During the dry summer dormancy period, the pots should be moved out of the rain and placed in a dry, cool area with good air circulation. Watering can commence at the onset of cooler autumn weather (March to April).
Adult plants can become afflicted with scale insect and mealy bug, especially if the cultural conditions are not ideal. Both of these maladies can be managed with a systemic insecticide or insecticidal soap and repellents. Ants will often bring and spread such infestations, and as such, it is best to manage ant populations where the plants are housed.
Propagation can be done by simply dividing the densely clustering bulbs or they can be grown from seed. Seed must be sown fresh (cannot be stored) in autumn or winter, in deep seed trays filled with the sifted potting mixture. The seed should 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, position out of direct sunlight and kept damp for between 2 to 4 weeks, until germination has commenced. Once the seedlings have emerged, watering can be reduced. Seedlings can be pricked out into community pots or individual containers after their first year of growth. Repotting should ideally be done shortly before the onset of autumn. Flowering size bulbs can be attained after 3 years from seed.
- Hankey, A.J. & Victor, J.E. 2005. Ledebouria ovalifolia (Schrad.) Jessop. National Assessment: Red List of South African Plants version 2020.1. Accessed on 2020/09/08.
- Hankey, A.J. 2019. Proposed English common names for African hyacinths (genus Ledebouria). Plantlife SA, Vol 47:7 https://plantlifesouthafrica.blogspot.com/
- iNaturalist. Observation of Ledebouria ovalifolia by Klaus Wehrlin on 13 Feb. 2020. https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/38611846. Accessed 8 September 2020.
- 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
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
- Wikipedia. Heinrich Scrader (botanist). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Schrader_(botanist). Accessed 8 September 2020.
- Wikipedia. William John Burchell. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_John_Burchell. Accessed 8 September 2020.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: images of Ledebouria ovalifolia in habitat by Klaus Wehrlin, from his observation on iNaturalist.
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Autumn, Winter
Flower colour: Green, Purple, White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy