Colourful Cape cowslips

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Many years ago I grew lots of lachenalias, commonly called Cape cowslips (though they are not related to cowslips, being related to lilies or more accurately hyacinths). I grew them from seed, which usually results in a flowering bulb in two or three years. My time in Ireland meant they were neglected and they are now gone, which is a great shame because they are easy to grow, varied and delightful. Like many Cape bulbs they are winter growers and should be potted or repotted in August and they growth through winter, flowering in spring – in frost-free conditions. Lack of sunshine is an issue and I used to supplement the light in the dark days of winter. Most have tubular flowers and a pair or three, often spotted, leaves and a few are fragrant. One of the easiest is Lachenalia bulbifera which, as its name suggest, produces numerous bulbils which makes it easy to propagate.

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The most common is probably Lachenalia aloides (above) which is usually seen with flowers marked with red, unlike my plain yellow form.

Much less common is Lachenalia purpureocaerulea (below) which has fragrant flowers in lovely shades of mauve and purple and leaves that are pustulate (covered in little bumps or blisters)

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Lachenalia mutabilis is interesting in that the flowers change colour from lavender buds (and flower scape) to yellow flowers. It is among the biggest species, reaching 25cm tall, and is a robust grower.

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But, perverse person that I am, possibly my favourite was Lachenalia pusilla, which, rather than having bell-shaped flowers, has very reduced petals and a very short flower stem so that the flowers open up in a pincushion in the centre of the narrow leaves. Adding to the charm the flowers are sweetly scented of coconut. It is not a loud plant but has a subtle charm.

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