Ledebouria pusilla (U.Müll.-Doblies & D.Müll.-Doblies) J.C.Manning & Goldblatt
Common names: Swazi African hyacinth (Eng.)
This tiny bulb is the smallest of all the ledebourias in the world. Often with only one or two leaves per plant, this species is tiny in all respects. The minute flower spike produces tiny but strongly scented flowers in early spring.
Dwarf, deciduous bulbous plants, 30–40 mm high, usually occurring as solitary individuals or in small groups of just a few plants. Each plant produces 1 or 2, broad, oblong to elliptic, erect to spreading leaves up to 30–40 mm long including a petiole-like leaf base. The leaves are dark olive green, usually unspotted above and deep red underneath, the petiole-like leaf base is banded or speckled with purplish brown markings; the leaves are covered with short, erect, translucent hairs on all surfaces. A short, erect flower spike, up to 30 mm high, usually slightly shorter than the leaves, is produced in early spring (August to September), often before the leaves emerge fully. The flower spike bears 10 to 15 tiny whitish buds, which develop a pinkish-white colour when the flowers mature. The individual florets (small flowers) barely open when mature, usually only the outer 3 tepals (petals) spread slightly to expose the inner 3 tepals (petals), which remain connate (touching) and conceal the inner parts of the flower. After the flowers are pollinated, the green seed capsules develop quickly and split open within a few weeks to release the tiny (0.6 mm), blackish, wrinkled seeds.
This species has not been assessed for the Red List of South African plants. The species is highly restricted in its range and is only known from the original type locality. The locality where it grows is under threat of trampling and grazing.
Distribution and habitat
The Swazi African hyacinth is endemic to eSwatini, where it is restricted to a small, isolated location in shady, protected pockets of soil, amongst boulders on north-facing granitic ridges, in the hills around Mbabane in eSwatini. It has, to date, never been found further afield.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
This species was first collected in 1982, and described in 1997, by the German husband and wife botanists, Drs Ute and Dietrich Müller-Doblies. The species is named after the diminutive size of the plant, being the smallest species in the genus Ledebouria; the word pusilla is derived from Latin and means ‘very small’. The species was originally described as Drimiopsis pusilla, however the genus Drimiopsis was subsequently combined into Ledebouria in 2004 by the South African botanist Dr John Manning, who, in 2012, also created two sections in Ledebouria to accommodate the closely allied groups, section Drimiopsis and section Resnova, that were formerly recognised as separate genera.
The genus is named in honour of the German-Estonian botanist, Professor Carl Friedrich von Ledebour (1785–1851). South Africa has 61 species of Ledebouria, with several more species occurring across southern, western, eastern and northeastern Africa and into India. The genus Ledebouria is a member of the Hyacinth Family and is well represented especially across eastern summer rainfall parts of South Africa. L. pusilla is most closely related to L. atropurpurea from which it differs by the pinkish-white flowers and the small size.
This species possesses typical Drimiopsis-type flowers in which the outer tepals (petals) only open slightly and do not become reflexed, while the inner tepals remain closed even when the flowers are mature. This distinction can be used to distinguish the Section Drimiopsis from the other two Sections Ledebouria and Resnova.
As is the case with most ledebourias, there is no documented information on the specific ecology of L. pusilla. 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 small size and leaf colouration may aid in camouflaging the plants where they often occur amongst leaf litter, thus protecting them from herbivory. The diminutive size may also enable the species to survive on very little water for extended dry periods in its natural habitat. The inner tepals have some yellow markings near the apex, these may influence the pollinators to locate the pollen and nectar inside the flower.
Observations have been made of various pollinators including small solitary bees, honey bees as well as small flies and wasps visiting the flowers when they are open. The visiting pollinators need to physically open the inner three tepals (petals) in order to gain access to the center of the flower where the pollen and nectar is located. The flowers are strongly hyacinth-scented especially in the warmer parts of the day. The seed is tiny, black and roundish with a wrinkled seed coat.
There are no known or recorded uses specifically of the Swazi African hyacinth. The genus Ledebouria generally 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 porcupines and some large ungulates have been recorded as eating the bulbs and leaves respectively, the entire genus should be regarded as being poisonous as a precaution.
Growing Ledebouria pusilla
The Swazi African hyacinth is easily cultivated, because of their small size, they are ideally suited to containers. Bulbs should be maintained outdoors in terracotta pots in semi-shade, in a warm, summer-rainfall climate.
Plant the bulbs in humus-rich loam soil or a well-drained potting medium rich in organic material, with some sifted well-aged kraal (cattle) manure or mature compost added. Watering should be limited to the warm summer growing season. Pots should be allowed to completely dry out during the winter rest period. Plants can withstand cold temperatures in winter, providing the soil is kept completely dry and the bulbs are dormant.
The pots should be moved out of the rain during the dormant winter season, and kept in a dry position with good air movement. Summer growth is initiated in spring (September to October) by the onset of warmer temperatures or light rain. Emergence of the flowers often precedes the leaves in this species, however, under moister conditions the flowers may emerge simultaneously with the leaves. Watering can commence as soon as the flowers or leaves break through the soil surface.
In cultivation, 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 contact or systemic insecticides. Ants will often bring and spread such infestations and as such it is best to manage ant populations in the area where the plants are grown.
Ledebouria pusilla is easily propagated from fresh seed (seed cannot be stored for longer than 1 year). Seed should be sown in spring or summer. Sow seed in pots or trays, on a finely sifted surface of the same growing medium. Cover with a fine layer of approximately 2–3 mm of the sifted medium. Water weekly and keep in a warm and protected position out of direct sunlight. Seeds usually germinate within 2–3 weeks, after which watering should be reduced depending on rainfall. 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 to3 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/
- Manning, J.C., Goldblatt, P. & Fay, M.F. 2004. A revised generic synopsis of Hyacinthaceae in sub-Saharan Africa, based on molecular evidence, including new combinations and the new tribe Pseudoprospereae. Edinburgh Journal of Botany 60: 533–568.
- Müller-Doblies, U. & Müller-Doblies, D. 1997. A partial revision of the tribe Massonieae (Hyacinthaceae). Feddes Repertorium 108 (1–-2): 49–96.
- Wikipedia. Carl Friedrich von Ledebour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Friedrich_von_Ledebour. Accessed 6 November 2018.
- Wiktionary. Pusilla. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pusilla. Accessed 7 July 2021.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
Acknowledgements: Bill Hancox is acknowledged for some photos, all other photos by the author.
Plant Type: Bulb
Soil type: Loam
Flowering season: Spring
Flower colour: White, Pink, Mauve/Lilac
Aspect: Full Sun, Shade, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy