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Growing Succulents in the Desert Column, March 2010

(List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns)

Lachenalias at their peak in March

By Mark Dimmitt

(This article may only be reprinted with the author's permission.)

Winter-growing bulbs are a great source of winter and early spring color. A huge number of species occur in Mediterranean climates (mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers), including Europe, the Pacific coast of North America, South Africa, and parts of South America. Some of the showiest and easiest to grow are lachenalias, also called Cape hyacinths. The genus Lachenalia contains about 110 species from South Africa, of which a couple dozen are worth growing. Most species bloom in March in the desert Southwest. Whether bulbs are succulents is an unsettled question. (See a discussion of the subject on the Desert Museum’s website) The fleshy perennating organ stores mostly starch, not water. The starch provides energy (and, when metabolized, produces water as well) for a surge of growth that enables the plant to complete its life cycle in a short growing season. Most bulbs do not sprout until the surrounding soil gets wet. A few bulbs use the starch and water to begin growing before the rains come; these are true succulents. Succulent or not, bulbs are definitely xerophytes, and are appealing to many succulent collectors.

Lachenalias can be grown in the ground if you don’t have rabbits, packrats, or quail. They are best grown in pots on benches, and put on display when in flower. Plant a single bulb in a 4-inch pot, or several in larger pots in fall. (Larger pots produce bigger plants with more flowers.) A well-drained humus-rich medium is best. Begin watering when the nights fall into the 50s. Water sparingly until the leaves are well up, then keep the medium moist through winter. Be sure to feed them generously during the growing season. After the flowers fade and the leaves begin to turn yellow, stop watering and store in the pots in a dry location over the summer. (And separate the pots or cut off the old spikes. Otherwise seedlings will volunteer all over the place, and soon you won’t know what you have.) Some species will rot if they receive much summer water. Lachenalias are sporadically available from mainstream nurseries and mail order catalogs. You can purchase bulbs in the fall from specialty bulb catalogs. Some local nurseries offer them, and they occasionally appear at stores such as Trader Joe’s.

Reference: “The Lachenalia Handbook”. G.D. Duncan. 1988.
Annals of Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens vol. 17.

List of Growing Succulents in the Desert columns