Society garlic: Tulbaghia

I have liked tulbaghias, known as society garlics, for many years. Twenty years ago I collected quite a few and did some ‘pollen-daubing’, raising quite a few seedlings, mostly crossing the common T. violacea with earlier-blooming T. simmleri and T. cominsii and the curiously shaded, brown, T. capensis. All the seedlings were attractive but my move to Ireland meant they got mixed up, were crowded in pots for years and had to survive outside for years. This thinned them out and most were lost but the hardiest and toughest stayed with me and have been planted. What I think are mostly T. violacea have been planted out into a south-facing bed with nerines and amarines and have done quite well. I believe they are hardier than often thought. If they have a major problem it is that they set seed freely and, if they find the site to their liking, have the potential to become weedy. But their foliage is so innocuous and their flowers so pretty, and fragrant, that they deserve to be more widely grown.

I have found all I grow to be hardy and what I think is T. cominsii, or one of my hybrids, is full of flowers now. Tulbaghia violacea flowers later and continues virtually all summer, in flushes.

Tulbaghias are South African and the plant structure is similar to agapanthus, with fleshy roots, but smaller in stature. Although the flowers are sweetly scented the plants have an onion smell and the flowers are often used by TV chefs. Although once included in the Alliaceae they have been moved to the Amaryllidaceae and the flowers have a small ‘corona’ in the centre, sometimes of a contrasting colour, so the flowers have a passing resemblance to a narcissus bloom. Some species grow in winter-wet areas in South Africa which explains why they survive outside here. They all grow best in full sun with plenty of water in summer but should be well-drained in winter. I would be cautious about winter cold and wet and they are possibly best in a pot so they can be given winter protection but they are obviously worth experimenting with.

The tulbaghias have had a tough few years but are now settling in. The same is true of ‘Empress Wu’, one of the largest, if not the largest, hosta cultivar. Like many large hostas it takes several years to reach its full size and having moved and divided mine four years ago it has slowed establishment a bit. But I think this is the year it will get into its stride. Two sit either side of the styrax and another in more shade. It got lightly caught by the last (I HOPE) frost of the season but is growing out of it. I am tempted to remove the flowers this year to boost the leaves and I have given them a feed of chicken pellets to push them a bit more!

After a couple of years of struggling, weigela ‘Courtacad 1′ (Black and White’), is settling in. I have added a few more weigelas this year and will feature them soon. They are a bit unfashionable and old-fashioned and it is true that they don’t flower for long. But breeders have been busy expanding the colour range, producing some that rebloom later in summer and to produce forms with variegated leaves and more compact habits. All of which should make them more popular. A feature of these new kinds that I don’t like is that the flowers are small and more tubular. But provided they are not dwarfed so much that they only have enough vigour to grow in a pot of compost and can’t cope with garden conditions (a common fault with some new plants) I won’t be too critical. This one is interesting and at least when the flowers die the brown blooms are not as obvious against the dark foliage as they would be against green! It is compact and should only reach about 45cm high and about twice as wide. Mine is that high after three years but has not yet developed middle-age spread and is rather upright. I like it in a curious way.

, , , ,

6 Comments on “Society garlic: Tulbaghia”

  1. Jaye Marie and Anita Dawes
    May 16, 2023 at 8:27 am #

    I am loving that black leaved weigela, not seen one before!

    • thebikinggardener
      May 16, 2023 at 9:04 am #

      It is fairly new. There are dark-leaved kinds with red flowers: I have ‘Alexandra’ and ‘Naomi Campbell’. They are similar but I think ‘Alexandra’ is a bit more vigorous and has paler flowers. These are both a little less ‘jarring’ in apperance and a bit easier to love but ‘Black and White’ is certainly different and useful if you want to make a black and white border – ideal with black ophiopogon, ‘Ravenswiing’ anthriscus and black angelica – I need to do that!

  2. Paddy Tobin
    May 16, 2023 at 9:25 am #

    An odd and interesting thing about the Tulbaghias is that they give off that garlic smell even when out of growth/when dormant so one is puzzled as to where it is coming from. There is a big planting of T. violacea on the roundabout outside Waterford University Hospital which is very impressive as they are big sturdy plants which hold their flowers for ages. I have found some of the tulbaghias a nuisance in the garden as they self-seed too much for my liking!

    • thebikinggardener
      May 16, 2023 at 9:31 am #

      Yes they are very garlicky. I seem to remember that they are called society garlic because if you eat them the garlic smell is not persistant but I have never tried and they would surely be called ‘sociable garlics’. I have not seen that roundabout but I am sure there were lots outside the greenhouse range at Mount Congreve (or my memory is failing me). I understand the seeding problem and they do set seed freely, and quickly, after flowering. On the plus side they are drought-tolerant and good for bees.

      • Paddy Tobin
        May 16, 2023 at 9:42 am #

        Yes, there is a big clump outside the glasshouse at Mount Congreve – if it still survives, I’m not sure, though I imagine it would be hard to kill it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sweetgum and Pines

gardening in the North Carolina piedmont

Ravenscourt Gardens

Learning life's lessons in the garden!

RMW: the blog

Roslyn's photography, art, cats, exploring, writing, life

Paddy Tobin, An Irish Gardener

Our garden, gardens visited, occasional thoughts and book reviews


un altro blog sul giardinaggio...


four decades of organic vegetable gardening and barely a clue

The Long Garden Path

A walk round the Estate!


Gardening on the edge of a cliff

Uprooted Magnolia

I'm Leah, a freelance Photographer born and raised in Macon, GA, USA. I spent 8 years in the wild west and this is my photo journal on life, love, and the spirit of Wyoming. Welcome to Uprooted Magnolia.

Interesting Literature

A Library of Literary Interestingness

Garden Variety

A Gardening, Outdoor Lifestyle and Organic Food & Drink Blog

For the Love of Iris

Articles, Tips and Notes from Schreiner's Iris Gardens

One Bean Row

Words and pictures from an Irish garden by Jane Powers

Plant Heritage

We are working to save garden plants for people to use and enjoy today and tomorrow


An English persons experience of living and gardening in Ireland

%d bloggers like this: