Veltheimia capensis (L.) Redouté
Common names: quarobe, sand lily (Eng.); kwarobe, sandlelie (Afr.)
Veltheimia capensis is an autumn- and winter-flowering bulb with striking rosettes of wavy or curled, grey-blue leaves and pendent, pink-speckled flowers. It is a sought-after container plant, and its plentiful nectar attracts sunbirds.
This deciduous, winter-growing geophyte, reaches 150-450 mm high in flower and grows from an egg-shaped or globose, fleshy bulb, with a prominent basal plate, from which perennial, fleshy roots arise. The upper part of the bulb is often exposed and the entire bulb is enclosed with layers of papery, creamy white outer tunics, which are sometimes barred with light brown. The narrowly or broadly lance-shaped or inversely lance-shaped leaves are variable in colour, width, length and orientation. They are arranged in a suberect, arching, spreading or prostrate rosette and are greyish green or bluish grey, slightly or strongly channeled, and have slightly or heavily wavy or curled margins.
The rigid, purple- or maroon-spotted flower stem (peduncle) emerges from the centre of the rosette and is coated with a greyish powdery bloom.
The flower stem carries a dense, cone-like raceme of narrow, pendent or nodding, uniformly pink, pink-speckled or rarely light yellow, tubular flowers, sometimes with cream-coloured tips. Each flower is produced at the tip of a short flower stalk (pedicel) and is subtended by a lance-shaped bract and 1 or more narrower bracteoles. The flowers have long, narrow perianth tubes and short, slightly flared tepals. The 6 stamens are slightly curved and arise from the perianth tube in 2 whorls at different levels, comprising 3 stamens per whorl. The anthers have yellow pollen and remain hidden within the flowers, but the style is sometimes shortly protruding and slightly curved at its tip.
The ripe fruit is a large, papery, 6-sided capsule comprising 3 compartments (locules) with 3 prominent wings. Each compartment contains 1 or 2 seeds, and when ripe, the capsule opens from the tip. The hard, pear-shaped seeds are matte black, with a heavily wrinkled coat, and have a prominent narrow, terminal structure known as a strophiole. The basic chromosome number is x = 10.
According to the Red List of South African plants website, consulted on 19 June 2018, Veltheimia capensis is assessed as Least Concern (LC), which indicates that it is considered at low risk of extinction, because of its widespread distribution.
Distribution and habitat
Veltheimia capensis is native to the drier northwestern, western, southwestern and southern parts of South Africa, and to southwestern Namibia. It occurs from Namuskluft in southwestern Namibia, southwards throughout the Richtersveld and Namaqualand, along the west coast to Atlantis, in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, east of Bredasdorp, further east in the southern Cape, and in the Baviaanskloof Mountains in the southwestern part of the Eastern Cape. It also occurs inland in the vicinity of Worcester and in the Little Karoo, as well as in the western and southern Great Karoo. On the west coast of the Northern and Western Cape, it is usually encountered on granite outcrops, growing in rock crevices among bushes in partial shade of boulders, as well as on exposed sandy flats. In the De Hoop Nature Reserve, it is confined to limestone outcrops, and in the Great Karoo, it is associated with stony flats and dolerite rocky outcrops. This species is suited to cultivation in full or partial sun in frost-free environments.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The earliest reference to the plant now known as Veltheimia capensis is a watercolour drawing dating from the late 17th century, probably by the German painter Heinrich Claudius, illustrating a bulb with leaves, flowers, fruit and seed, which appeared in the journal of Simon van der Stel, Dutch Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. The journal illustrated his expedition to Namaqualand between 1685 and 1686, and the illustrated plant had been found west of Bitterfontein, on the north-western coast of the Western Cape. The genus Veltheimia honours the German mineralogist and geologist, Count August Ferdinand von Veltheim (1741–1801), and was established in 1771 by his compatriot, the botanist Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch. Veltheimia capensis was originally described by Linnaeus as Aletris capensis in the second edition of his Systema naturae in 1759, and in 1807, it was renamed and illustrated in watercolour in volume 4 of Les liliacées as a species of Veltheimia by the Belgian flower painter, Pierre Joseph Redouté. Various names published by subsequent authors including Aletris glauca Aiton, Veltheimia deasii P.E.Barnes, V. glauca (Aiton) Jacq. and V. roodeae E.Phillips, were later found to be synonymous with V. capensis. The specific name capensis is descriptive of the former Cape Province of South Africa, where this species was first collected.
Veltheimia is endemic to South Africa and Namibia and comprises 2 species, V. capensis, the type species, and V. bracteata. Both are variable and often confused, as they are not easily distinguishable with regard to floral characters. Vegetatively, however, they are set apart by a combination of bulb and leaf characters, and they differ in flowering time, distribution and habitat. Bulbs of V. bracteata differ in being more or less subterranean, with distinctive fleshy scales which do not form layers of papery outer tunics, as in V. capensis. The leaves of V. capensis are often partially hysteranthous, meaning that flowering begins before the leaves are fully developed, in autumn, whereas those of V. bracteata, are fully developed at flowering time, which is in spring. V. bracteata is native to coastal dunes overlaying south-facing rocky slopes, and inland populations are encountered on cliff faces in stony, sandstone-derived soil, or in thicket vegetation along rocky riverbanks. V. capensis has the widest distribution, occurring in an arc from southwestern Namibia to the southwestern parts of the Eastern Cape, and V. bracteata is confined to the southern and eastern parts of the Eastern Cape. Both species are winter growing, but V. bracteata is often almost evergreen, especially in cultivation, the new rosette of leaves appearing in autumn before all the old leaves have completely withered.
Within the family Hyacinthaceae, Veltheimia forms part of the tribe Massonieae, to which its near relative Lachenalia also belongs. Vegetatively it is distinguished from Lachenalia by its large, globose or ovoid bulb surrounded by layers of papery outer tunics, with a prominent basal plate and perennial fleshy roots, and by its relatively large basal rosette of broadly lance-shaped or inversely lance-shaped leaves. It differs further by the presence of bracteoles at the base of the flower stalks, and by its very short, almost completely fused tepals. In addition, it stands apart in having much larger, broadly winged, inflated, papery seed capsules that are unique within the family, and in having much larger, pear-shaped seeds.
Veltheimia capensis is a deciduous, winter-growing geophyte adapted to cool, moist winters, and hot, dry summers. A new rosette of leaves emerges in early autumn, often together with the developing flower head. Rapid leaf growth takes place in autumn and early winter, and flowering ensues from mid-autumn to mid-winter. The leaves wither and die back in late spring, and the bulbs remain completely dormant throughout summer. The layers of papery tunics surrounding the bulb provide protection from scorching summer heat during the dormant period. The seed capsules reach maturity within 3–4 months, following which they detach from the seed head (infructescence) in wind gusts. The papery, ripe capsules are evolved for wind dispersal (anemochory). Because of their light, aerodynamic form, they are carried away from the mother plant, landing against bushes and within rock crevices. The capsules disintegrate during the heat of summer, leaving the seeds behind, which germinate after the first autumn rains.
The long, tubular flowers are pollinated by Southern Double-collared Sunbirds (Cinnyris chalybeus), which cling to the sturdy flower stems, or to branches of surrounding bushes, while probing the base of the perianth tube for nectar. After fully inserting its beak, pollen adheres to the forehead of the sunbird, and when this pollen comes into contact with the stigmas of different clones (genetically different individuals), fertilization takes place.
Veltheimia capensis has no economic or magical uses, but a note in Simon van der Stel’s journal in 1685 states that the Nama and Griqua people used the bulb as a purgative. This species is sometimes used for ornamental display in specialist bulb collections and rock gardens.
Growing Veltheimia capensis
The cultivation requirements of V. capensis differ markedly from those of V. bracteata. The latter species is almost evergreen and is not adversely affected by moisture at any time of year, whereas V. capensis requires infrequent watering and has a pronounced summer dormant period, during which the bulbs have to be kept dry, failing which they are subject to fungal disease. V. capensis is well suited as a container plant, grown under cover on a sunny patio, and makes a handsome display planted in bold groups in rock garden pockets, in areas with dry summers that are not subject to heavy winter rainfall. It requires high light intensity to flower well, and to allow the flower colour to manifest fully, preferring full sun, or at least full morning sun and afternoon shade. In excessive shade it fails to flower, its leaves lose their intense glaucous coloration, and the leaf margins lose much of their attractive waviness. Inland forms of V. capensis can take light frost for a few hours, but in very cold climates this species has to be grown under protection, such as in a cool glasshouse.
Plant the bulbs in late summer in a well-drained medium, with at least one third or up to two thirds of the bulb exposed. A 20–25 cm deep pot suits this species well, and the bulbs like to be placed close together. A suggested growing medium is 3 parts coarse river sand or grit, and 1 part well-decomposed, finely sifted acid compost. Water the bulbs heavily in early autumn, wait for the leaf rosettes to emerge, then water heavily approximately once every 10 days, allowing the medium to dry out substantially before each succeeding watering is given. Once established, allow the bulbs to remain undisturbed for at least 5 years, whether grown in pots or in the garden. During the summer dormant period, allow the medium to dry out completely.
For the home gardener, propagation is easiest by seed or offsets, and is also possible by leaf cuttings, bulb chipping and in vitro propagation. The black, pear-shaped seeds are harvested from the dry capsules from late winter to early summer. To prevent capsules from being lost in strong wind, they can be removed from the infructescence just before they are fully ripe (while still slightly fleshy) and allowed to complete the maturation process in a dry, protected environment.
Remove the seeds from the dry capsules and sow them 5 mm deep in early autumn in deep pots or seed trays, in the same medium recommended for mature bulbs, and place in bright light, under cover. Keep moist every 3 days using a watering can fitted with a fine rose cap. Seeds of this species should not be kept too wet during the germination process. Germination of fresh seeds is rapid, occurring within 3 weeks. Once germination has taken place, reduce moisture application to one thorough watering per week, and feed with an organic plant food such as fish emulsion. Allow seedlings to go dormant in summer by withholding water completely. Seedlings should remain in their containers for 2 growing seasons before pricking them out individually into small pots at the start of their third season. At the start of the fourth season, plant them into permanent containers or into rock garden pockets, and if well grown, flowers should appear for the first time in the fourth season.
Separation of offsets is most successfully undertaken in late summer, just before the new leaf rosettes appear. Carefully dig up thick clumps and prize the offsets apart, ensuring that the basal plate is not damaged excessively. Treat injured surfaces with a fungicide and allow the offsets to dry for a few days before replanting into dry soil.
Take leaf cuttings from early to mid-winter by selecting strong, mature leaves in active growth. Cut away the upper half and insert about 20 mm of the lower half into coarse, slightly damp, sterilized river sand in deep seed trays, and place in a cool, lightly shaded position. After several months, bulblets will develop along the cut parts of the leaf, and can be removed in early summer and potted-up separately. This method of propagation is more successful with V. bracteata than with V. capensis, as cuttings of the latter rot easily if kept too wet.
Bulb chipping involves cutting a mature bulb into longitudinal sections, each section containing a portion of the basal plate. Dust the sections with a fungicide and place upright, with the tips exposed, in a slightly moist rooting medium such as equal parts of coarse river sand or grit, and peat moss. After a few weeks, young bulblets begin to form on the cut surfaces of the basal plate. They are removed at the beginning of the following growing season and potted-up individually. Micropropagation involves culturing small portions of the leaf in a sterile medium inside a test tube or culture dish, under laboratory conditions, in which shoots develop into small plants.
The developing flower buds of V. capensis are sometimes eaten by caterpillars, and the leaves and flowers are eaten by the European brown garden snail (Cornu aspersa), but other than these, the plants are rarely subject to pests. When grown in insufficiently well drained media, the bulbs are highly susceptible to fungal attack.
- Duncan, G.D. 2004. The genus Veltheimia. The Plantsman (new series) 3(2): 97–103.
- Duncan, G.D. 2010. Grow bulbs. Kirstenbosch Gardening Series. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Cape Town.
- Duncan, G.D. & Visagie, M. 2009. Veltheimia bracteata. Flowering Plants of Africa 61: 34–41.
- Marais, W. 1972. The correct names for veltheimias, the winter red hot pokers. Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 47: 483, 484.
- Obermeyer, A.A. 1961. Veltheimia capensis. The Flowering Plants of Africa 34: t. 1356.
- Waterhouse, G., de Wet, G.C. & Pheiffer, R.H. 1979. Simon van der Stel’s journey to Namaqualand in 1685. Human & Rosseau, Cape Town and Pretoria.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Bulb
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy
Flowering season: Autumn, Winter
PH: Acid, Alkaline, Neutral
Flower colour: Pink, Yellow
Aspect: Full Sun, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Average