SOME FLOWERS can be frustratingly fleeting in their beauty. Often it’s the most stunning blooms that are virtually here today, gone tomorrow.
I place Watsonia in this category and, having grown a couple of clumps for many years, I’m relieved when the summer sun pops behind a cloud for an hour or so and the mercury takes a tumble.
Normally, the star-faced tubes in glistening – almost luminous – salmon-apricot will unfold at breakfast time and start to fade by supper. The consolation, however, is that there is an abundance of these tubes on each stem, so the dazzling array is nicely prolonged.
Watsonias, with more than 50 species to their name, hail from grassy slopes and plateaux in South Africa and Madagascar, many of them thriving in the wild in the south-west Cape, eastern Cape, Natal and the Transvaal.
They grow from corms and vary in height from 1ft to 5ft, though the vast majority bought in the UK will be Watsonia pillansii, aka beatricis, or one of the numerous hybrids bred from it.
With its handsome, sword-shaped leaves, this species reaches anywhere between 20in and 48in and loves life in the sun – and that’s the paradox here, with excessive heat and sunshine considerably reducing its flower power.
Although perennial, watsonias are not entirely hardy, though my plants have come through our occasional bone-chilling winters here in the south-west to fight another season.
For gardeners “up north” where the risk of frost is commonplace, I’d recommend planting the corms in pots plunged straight into their site and lifting in late autumn to the comfort of a greenhouse or a frost-free shed.
The larger of my clumps currently has an impressive 20 stems, the best effort to date, so it has clearly relished the sizzling July in helping to build up bud strength.
Other than being sun-lovers, these southern hemisphere glories are content in any soil and you’ll find a few species listed in specialist catalogues. As for your local garden centre – it’s a possibility, but no guarantees.
Which reminds me – I must look out for hybrids that are mauve, red or white as a striking contrast to my present lodgers.
Incidentally, some of the species’ names are a challenge to remember and to get your tongue around, such as Watsonias fourcadei (5ft), knysnana (3ft), versfeldii (4ft) and vanderspuyae (4ft).
Although I cannot be certain – and I’m no Latin scholar! – I’ve a feeling the last-named was bred by the late Una van der Spuy, a renowned South African plantswoman whose wonderful encyclopedia, Wild Flowers of South Africa for the Garden, regularly gets grabbed from my bookshelf and its pages fervently turned.
✴ Wonderful but ephemeral watsonias: Top and centre – two views of Watsonia pillansii in my garden showing the fading lower blooms; above – a cluster of watsonia hybrids, as illustrated in Una’s encyclopedia.