Ledebouria ovatifolia subsp. ovatifolia
Ledebouria ovatifolia (Baker) Jessop subsp. ovatifolia
Common names: flat-leaved African hyacinth (Eng.); icubudwana (isiZulu); untanganazibomvu (isiXhosa)
Curious and widespread, a variable, bulbous plant, with unique, broad, flat, usually spotted leaves, which are tightly appressed to the soil surface, and always attract the attention of the keen wildflower spotter.
Deciduous bulbous plant usually occurring singularly, but often abundant where they occur. The bulb is quite characteristic in not having the membranous dry papery sheaths so often present in other species of Ledebouria instead the live bulb scales are truncated on the bulb and not forming a tunic (neck) at the top of the bulb. The small to large, broadly oval leaves may be attractively spotted, unspotted or irregularly blotched, sometimes shiny and highly polished although mostly dull, are appressed tightly to the soil surface. The leaves are highly variable from one population to another and even across each population.
The flower spikes are produced in spring and summer, like many Ledebouria they do not stand erect, but rather lay out along the ground as if they have melted. Numerous wine-red to cerise-pink, small flowers are arranged in a bottle brush-like structure along the flower stalk (peduncle). A few weeks after the flowers have faded, large drop-shaped seeds are produced in green seed capsules, which split open and release the seed, which can often be seen lying around on the ground near the mother plants.
This species is not threatened in its natural habitat; it is regarded very common and widespread and is therefore assessed as Least Concern (LC).
Distribution and habitat
This species is widely distributed across the eastern, moister, summer-rainfall regions of southern Africa, including Northwest, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Free State and Eastern Cape Provinces, as well as Lesotho and Swaziland.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Ledebouria is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Karl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). The species name ovatifolia, meaning 'oval leaved', is comprised of two parts; ovati, which means ‘oval’ in Latin, and folia, which is also Latin meaning 'leaf', in reference to the shape of the leaves.
The genus Ledebouria has close to 100 species extending from India across the Arabian Peninsula, southwards though Africa down to South Africa, with the highest level of diversity in the eastern side of southern Africa centered in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces. New species are constantly being discovered in this highly variable group of plants, with three new species being named in 2015.
South Africa has 43 Ledebouria species. Ledebouria ovatifolia is easily recognized by the broad, oval leaves that are tightly appressed to the soil surface. Although this species is not easily confused with other Ledebouria because of its tightly appressed leaves, confusion often arises because of the amount of variation included in this species, with the result that plants from different populations can look so dissimilar. However, this species has a closely related subspecies, L. ovatifolia subsp. scabrida N.R.Crouch & T.J.Edwards, with which it could be confused. The subspecies scabrida however, has numerous, small raised bumps (pappilae) on the upper surface of the leaves, giving them a rough texture, and as such it should not easily cause confusion.
Ledebouria ovatifolia occurs in grassland and savanna, from sea level up to the high Drakensberg in Kwa-Zulu-Natal and Lesotho. Venter (1993), records this species being eaten by porcupine. The flowers are open and cup-shaped, which suggests that they are opportunistically pollinated by most visiting insects, although honey bees have been seen visiting the flowers, as well as butterflies, solitary bees and several other small insects. The black to brownish seed is drop-shaped with a wrinkled surface. It is suggested in one text that they are distributed by water wash, which is likely after heavy thunderstorms which are frequent in many of the areas where the species occurs.
The flat-leaved African hyacinth has copious, thin, spider web-like fibres in the both the leaves and especially the bulb scales; this is presumed to be a defence against herbivory (being eaten by animals and insects). The leaves which are appressed to the ground is presumably a defence against being shaded by other plants; the process of pressing the leaves to the ground has the result of pushing other plants out of the way, thus allowing the sunlight to reach the leaves. This species occurs in areas that are prone to fire during the dry winter months. The bulbs can survive fire by going dormant and remaining safe underground while the fire rages overhead. It has been suggested that the spots on the leaves aid in camouflaging the leaves from hungry, leaf-eating animals. Whereas, it is also suggested that the spots on the leaves make the leaf look as if it has already been eaten by other insects, causing would-be insect predators to seek alternative leaves to eat.
This species is used regularly in traditional African medicine and it can often be found on sale at South African muthi markets across the country. Ledebouria ovatifolia is used medicinally for purposes including pregnancy, diarrhoea, influenza, backache, skin irritations, wound treatment, as well as lumbago.
Ledebouria ovatifolia has been cited as being toxic to sheep as well as containing chemical compounds that have a similar effect to the well-known foxglove plant, Digitalis, which contains heart glycosides used in the treatment of heart conditions. Extracts from the bulb are also recorded as having antibacterial properties.
Despite some species being poisonous, it is also reported that bushmen eat the bulbs of certain other species of Ledebouria such as L. apertiflora and L. revoluta. They may first have to cook them to break down the toxins.
Growing Ledebouria ovatifolia subsp. ovatifolia
Ledebouria ovatifolia is easily cultivated in an organic-rich, loam soil with good drainage, the addition of sifted kraal (cattle) manure, bone meal and coarse sand, is beneficial. In the garden they can be used in grassland (meadow) gardens or in succulent rockeries at the base of aloes or other succulent plants. They are also very well suited to be grown in containers, and can make an attractive feature when planted amongst some interesting rocks. Adult plants prefer a warm climate with watering in the form of heavy downpours between each period of almost drying out in summer. They should be kept in full sun to bring out the best spots and leaf markings. Shaded plants tend to lose their leaf markings. During the dry winter dormancy period, the pots should be moved out of the rain and placed in a cool dry area with good air movement. Watering can commence at the onset of warmer weather in spring (September to October in South Africa).
Propagation from seed is a very successful method of producing more plants. Fresh seed should be sown 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, well-ventilated 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 and sunlight can be increased. The seedlings only develop their flat leaves after 2 or more years of age. Bulblets can remain in the seedling tray for one year or more and planted out at the beginning of their second or third growing season. Flowering size bulbs can be attained after 3 to 4 years.
Visit iSpot to see more images of this curious and attractive bulb species: http://www.ispotnature.org/search/node/Ledebouria%20ovatifolia
- Crouch, N.R., Edwards, T.J. & Beaumont, A. 2007. Ledebouria ovatifolia subsp. scabrida (Hyacinthaceae), Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. Flowering Plants of Africa 60: 14–19.
- Hankey, A. 2003. Distinguishing between Ledebouria, Drimiopsis and Resnova. PlantLife (S. Afr.) 29: 38, 39.
- Hankey, A. 2011-07. Ledebouria Roth (Hyacinthaceae). http://pza.sanbi.org/ledebouria-genus. Internet 5 pp.
- Mulholland, Dulcie A., Schwikkard, Sianne L. and Crouch, Neil R. 2013. The chemistry and biological activity of the Hyacinthaceae. Natural Products Report, 30, 1165-1210
- 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?.
- Venter, S. & Edwards, T.J. 1998. A revision of Ledebouria (Hyacinthaceae) in South Africa. 2. Two new species, L. crispa and L. parvifolia, and L. macowanii re-instated. Bothalia 28(2): 179–182.
- iSpot southern Africa https://www.ispotnature.org/communities/southern-africa
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West
Soil type: Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer
Flower colour: Pink
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy