Now you see it, now you don't: Lachenalia (Cape cowslips)




Growing bulbs is a lesson in trust. Will they grow? Will they bloom? Will they come back? Are they dead? Will they RE-bloom?


One group of bulbs that I always grow, and enjoy, and that always rewards my trust (and my self-discipline when it comes to making sure I DON'T water them when they're dormant) is the so-called "cape cowslips", known botanically as members of the Lachenalia. I've grown them for quite a few years here in my Phoenix, Arizona area garden, and prior to that I grew them as houseplants in pots. They are easy to grow, bloom, and multiplyl if you have two things: TRUST and RESTRAINT.


Trust: trust that they'll come back and flourish for you if you treat them right.

RESTRAINT: don't water them when they are dormant, showing no sign of life, during summer. NONE. It's not as easy as it sounds if you're generous with the watering can like I am, but it can be done.

As houseplants, they want full sun from autumn through spring, so give them a nice sunny south or west facing window, and water once a week or so when they have leaves and/or blooms. Once the days get really long and warm, the bulbs will go dormant and disappear underground. That's when the "restraint" part kicks in: keep them very warm, but don't give them water again until autumn when they start growing again.

As landscape plants in warm winter areas (today's picture is one from my little garden) they want very analagous care: sunshine autumn, winter, and spring, and no water when they fall (quite dramatically by the way) into dormancy in summer. I grow most of mine on the east side of the house, or walls, so that they get sunshine from sunrise to mid-day, and then shade in the afternoon. I water them once a week or ten days when I see leaves, and not at all when I don't. Once the temperatures get warm, and their foliage yellows and falls away, the only water my Lachenalia bulbs get is from our infrequent rains. Honestly, I always forget about them, and when I do think about them, I think "Well, they're all dead this time." Then, once our long, hot summer gives way to warm, but not hot autumn, the bulbs start re-emerging. That's when I start giving them water again. I know, I know, it's nonsensical: water them when it's cool, but not when it's hot. But really, they're playing it safe and going dormant during the blast furnace weather, and since they're busy growing or blooming while they're asleep, they really don't need, or want, additional water.

Most types spread quite nicely from offsets and divisions, and if you let some of the blooms make seeds, you'll get seedlings too. Some species, like L. bulbifera, also make small bulbils at the leaf joints, and these will fall to the ground to wait out summer and re-sprout when the cooler weather returns.

Whatever you call them "Lachenalia" or "Cape Cowslips", you're sure to call them "beautiful." Give them a try, and let me know how it goes.

Happy Gardening, Grant

Views: 48

Tags: Arizona, Cape cowslips, Lachenalia, Phoenix, Scottsdale, bulbs, cowslips, geophytes

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Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on March 5, 2012 at 2:07pm

Thanks, Christine, I'm so glad you enjoyed this.  Lachenalias do really well in mild winter areas like ours.  Take care and thanks for looking/commenting!

Comment by Christine Zone 9 AZ on March 5, 2012 at 12:57pm

Grant these are so pretty. Love it..Just love checkout your garden its so pretty....

Comment by Grant, Scottsdale,Arizona Zone 9 on March 4, 2012 at 9:21am

Thanks for looking, reading, commenting, I appreciate it.  I sometimes struggle with "restraint" myself, LOL.  Luckily the bulbs disappear when they're dormant so "out of sight, out of mind" helps me not water them then, LOL.  They're hardy to about USDA Zone 7/8.  They can tolerate quite a bit of frost, and even a light freeze, but the bulbs themselves cannot be frozen solid.  Thanks again--let me know if you give them a try.  Happy gardening!

Comment by Barbara Brown Z8 Al. on March 3, 2012 at 11:31pm

Beautiful plant & also new to me!  I also lack in the restraint part, but I would love to give them a try.  Do you happen to know their hardiness zones?

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