I have been treating myself to some spring-flowering bulbs this week but, lovely as they are, nothing quite comes close to the flowers of Tigridia pavonia, the most widely available species of the genus. Commonly called the tiger flower or shell flower, Tigridia pavonia is native to Mexico (the genus is largely found in Mexico and Guatemala). It is usually available in packs of mixed colours and is cheap to buy. A true bulb, it is not reliably hardy in the British Isles outside but is easy enough to grow if treated like gladioli and lifted and dried over winter. The bulbs usually divide fairly freely and even the small bulblets will flower if they are given good treatment. This means a bright, warm spot in fertile, preferably light soil. If you can’t provide that it will grow well in pots but (there is always a but!) the plant itself, with pleated leaves, is rather straggly and will need some support.
I am afraid that, despite being very erudite people, botanists have never quite seemed to get to grips with what a tiger looks like and although named after a tiger, the spotted and blotched flowers are more leopard-like – they did get it right with Lilium pardalinum – meaning spotted like a leopard.
Those responsible for naming animals are not that great either, as I have noted in the past – the giraffe genus (Giraffa) is OK but the species, camelopardalis seems to mean ‘camel leopard’!
The name pavonia is supposed to refer to Jose Antonio Pavon (1754-1840), a Spanish botanist who collected in Peru and Chile – there are a few species from this area but not Tigridia pavonia. He has a genus (Pavonia in the malvaceae) named after him. But surely it would be more appropriate that this sumptuous bulb was named after Pavo cristatus, the Indian peacock. I am not sure.
Tigridias were appreciated and grown by the Aztecs and were called cacomitl.
Clearly in the Iridaceae, with the three stamens, the flowers are wonderfully intricate with three small inner petals and three huge outer petals. The blooms can be 12cm across but (that word again) each one only lasts a day. Fortunately the stems carry a cluster of these at the ends and the flowers open, one at a time, over several weeks. I would only ever plant a clump of at least ten together so you can be sure of at least one per day for a month or so in August and September.
Cultivation is quite easy. Plant about 8cm deep in spring or start them in pots earlier in a greenhouse and plant them out when frosts are past. They frequently set seed and the seedlings should flower in their second year if you treat them well. Sow the seeds in a propagator in spring in gentle heat and they germinate quite quickly. Grow them well and give plenty of high-potash fertiliser. Lift them in autumn when the foliage dies down, separate the bulbs when dry and keep the largest to plant out and the smaller to grow on to flowering size.
10/10 – what else?