Albucas are not the kind of plant most people fall in love with. They are rather demure little plants with grassy leaves and flowers that are usually in shades of green, brown, white or, in the more showy species, yellow. They typically have flowers in which the three outer petals open flat but the inner three remain closed with the tips touching. All albucas are native to Africa with a concentration of species in South Africa and the flowers are usually pendant or upward-facing on unbranched scapes. Most are winter growers which means that, in northern temperate climates they need to be grown in a frost-free greenhouse. They do not make good houseplants because they need more light than a typical window allows. Most die down in summer and should be kept dry. The most common species, in the UK at least, is A. shawii. It is a profusely blooming small plant with masses of fragrant flowers. It is easier than most because it is a summer-grower and if it can be protected from severe frost in winter it can be grown outside in a sunny, well-drained spot. I have grown it many times in pots in a cool greenhouse and it grows well and even seeds around. The flowers are quite showy and it is a consumer-friendly albuca in contrast to some of the more subtle species which are what are politely called ‘collector’s plants’. This description is on a par with the word ‘interesting’. I remember many years ago when I was a student at Kew when we were encouraged to give short talks about plants before the ‘main feature’ at the weekly ‘Kew Mutuals’ that ‘interesting’ was the word used to describe a plant when it had no other merit – an observation made by the terrifying but knowledgeable and unique Brian Halliwell (Assistant Curator) who passed away this year in April. Apart from their ‘interesting’ blooms, some albucas also have curious leaves. The most startling of these is Albuca spiralis which is native to the Western Cape Province. It is generally a short plant with leaves that grow upright at first but then curl round and round as if they have been in curlers for a while (I am showing my age here and the fact that I grew up watching Hilda Ogden – today it should be curling tongs I guess). The effect is either of a bunch of green springs or ringlets. It is a desirable plant but not commonly available. Until now. You can guess my excitement when I popped into the local garden centre and there on the counter, waiting to be put out for sale was a tray of Albuca spiralis! Obviously some European grower has selected a strong form of this and managed to propagate it and grow it so well that it is acceptable for general sale. Now the fact that a garden centre stocks a plant does not mean it is a good plant to grow. Every garden centre sells kangaroo paws in summer (anigozanthus) but I am sure these all die within a few months if not weeks. As I said earlier, Albuca spiralis is a summer-dormant plant so it is worrying that it is in bloom now. Is this a new evergreen form? Is it out of sync and will it remain so? Will it remain green all winter and then go dormant next summer? I will have to watch the plant and see what it wants to do. Anyway the plant was showing a few flower spikes when I bought it but now, about two weeks later, the first flowers are open. They are large and attractive and definitely taller than most images of the wild plant suggest even though my plants are in good light and not at all etiolated. Scape height is about 20cm but should extend to about 30cm when the last flowers open I should think. Most descriptions describe the fragrance of the flowers as like butter but I am not sure about that. It seems to be rather medicinal to me and slightly ‘wintergreen’ish. I am not that keen. But it is not strong so will not put me off the plant. Is it my fertile imagination or do the flowers look like Martian death rays! Some ‘clever marketing person’ came up with the name of ‘Frizzle Sizzle’ for the plant, a name that is already used for a frilly pansy. I am sure that ‘Curler Whirler’ would have been more appropriate (since a Curly Wurly is a different thing altogether) or ‘Spaghetti Yeti’. Anyway, it’s a nice little plant and is giving me a lot of pleasure: and being interesting is better than nothing.
Update: August 2015
Since I originally wrote this post my plant has continued to grow with no signs of becoming dormant at any time. I have not repotted. It has been on a south-facing windowsill of the house all the time and had a flush of flowers in spring but sends up another spike every now and then. It has two now. It is kept moist but I do not worry if it dries out a bit – it is one of the least demanding of the houseplants I have. It is useful because it is a plant that will grow on a south-facing windowsill and has a hibiscus, some cacti and a sanseveria as neighbours. It is given a liquid feed about once every two weeks. Despite its sunny spot I think it could do with better light because the leaves are a bit ‘drawn’ and narrow compared to when it was bought and not nearly as curly. In Ireland (and other parts of the world with limited sunlight) I think it would be better in a greenhouse and I am almost tempted to try it outside in summer. But I will have to divide it so I have more than one plant before I risk that.
Update: March 2016
This post has proved to be the most popular I have written (though that may be because of a spelling mistake in the update above when I wrote that ‘my pant has continued to grow’ – now corrected! The albuca is still on the south-facing windowsill and I have not divided it or repotted it as I had planned. It is usually allowed to dry out between waterings and it is watered with rain water and given a high potash fertiliser along with all the houseplants. It does not show any signs of wanting a winter or summer rest. It is now producing seven flower spikes.
Update: August 2017
Well a lot happened to my plant in the past 18 months. I returned to the UK in June 2016 and misjudged what I could get in the van! As a result a lot of plants got left behind including my beloved albuca. As fate would have it, I returned to Ireland exactly a year to the day and am back for good this time. So what happened to the albuca?
Well it was left out all winter among other plants in a tray. Left in the open to the Irish winter with rain and frost. So what did I find when I came back?
To my surprise, the plant had survived. The pot was packed with foliage and the bulbs, which were now near the compost surface with their upper surface exposed, had survived apart from where they had been scoured by slugs and snails.
I immediately knocked them out of the pot and repotted them. I used a mix with some loam, coarse organic matter and Perlite. There was a mix of large bulbs, mid-sized bulbs and some tiny ones. I potted some of the biggest into 9cm square pots, some smaller ones in groups of three and a few larger pots with some of the best looking bulbs. Now, about two months later, they are all growing well.
They have nicely curly leaves and some are sending up flower spikes. It will encourage me to try some outside when I have suitable conditions (full sun and well drained soil). But it does confirm that this is an easy plant and will withstand a few degrees of frost without being killed.