Growing African hyacinth indoors

Going.Local
Published on April 26th 2021
5
Ledebouria
The African hyacinth or common squill is one of the most aptly named bulbs to grace the bushveld. They have managed to stalk their way into city homes and yet few would consider them rare or flamboyant. However, today I am here to change your mind!
For many, these will be your first foray into the realm of bulbs and rightly so as these jungle wonders are some of the easiest to care for.
ledebouria silver squill
The bulbs range from 2 to 20 cm with green or purple leaf markings.

What are they?

Ledebouria or leopard lilies are small bulbs with spotted green leaves (like a leopard) or striped. These indigenous bulbs occur throughout semi-arid stretches of the Eastern and Western Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo, Kwazulu-Natal and the Free State. Some grow in full sun grasslands, whilst others prefer the dappled shade of shrubland.
They have adapted to go dormant during the dry, fire-prone winter months of the northern provinces and shed their leaves if need be. In the home, however, they stay evergreen year-round and flower come summer. The small blooms are pollinated by tiny solitary bees, crawling insects (ants) and attract butterflies. If that was not enough, several are known to harbour medicinal properties (to treat skin irritations), although, some are poisonous.
ledebouria silver squill
The leaf shape and markings differ between species.

What is in a name?

There are so many names for these plants that it can be overwhelming. For example, many may see the name African hyacinth as somewhat misleading. Ledebouria might not have the bombastic blooms of European hyacinths, but the small racemes are a miniaturised version of its cousin's. The scientific names are equally confusing since many old names are still in circulation.
European hyacinths are common indoor bulbs:
Good to know: Many of these bulbs have previously been called Drimia, Drimiopsis or Scilla. They are all very closely related but genetically different.
Nonetheless, they are uniquely South African and make for carefree additions to rock and container gardens.
ledebouria drimia squill
Ledebouria petiolata is one of the most commonly available, yet it is not a true Ledebouria anymore. It has been reclassified as Drimiopsis maculata.

Growth and care

Ledebouria are expressive in that the leaves will stretch towards the light if it needs more or the bulbs will slightly shrivel if it is underwatered. They are the best gift for a forgetful friend.
  • Distribution: Naturally occurs throughout South Africa.
  • Soil: Sandy/loamy soil/gravelly (succulent soil with a little more humic content) and 50% inorganic matter.
  • Light: Half-day to full sun (early morning or late afternoon. It etiolates quickly in low light. The light requirement is species-specific.
  • Water: Weekly in spring-summer, monthly in winter.
  • Fertiliser: A low strength fertiliser at the start of the growing season.
  • Containers: Shallow containers as the root system is fairly small.
  • Flower: three to four-year-old bulbs tend to flower.
  • Attract: Bee-friendly, Butterfly-friendly.
  • Propagation: Bulbs form offsets at the base and can be propagated with these or seed.
  • Warning: Poisonous unless treated to remove toxins
  • Dormancy: Winter (Outside)
  • Disease: Bacterial rot
The wonderful thing about these beauties is that they stay evergreen indoors. You can enjoy the colourful, patterned leaves year-round.
A close up of a flower

When and Where to buy

After the summer growing season, the bulbs are nice and plump, ideal for shipping during its natural dormancy. Shipping during a dormancy period is often less stressful on the bulb. They can be shipped on moist vermiculite and either stored until spring or potted up in a well-draining (succulent) mix.
Online bulb providers:
If you store the bulbs, make sure the roots do not desiccate (dehydrate). The bulbs will need to be in an airy container with moist (not wet) vermiculite. You want to avoid fungus or bacterial rot with good air circulation. Planted bulbs will resprout if room temperatures are high enough.
For more on affordable indoor plants see:

Please remember to share your favourite indoor bulb in the comments below!

Bibliography:
Manning, John & GOLDBLATT , P. & Fay, Michael. (2003). A revised generic synopsis of Hyacinthaceae in Sub-Saharan Africa, based on molecular evidence, including new combinations and the new tribe Pseudoprospereae. Edinburgh Journal of Botany, 60, 533 - 568.
Manning, J.C. & Goldblatt. 2012. Hyacinthaceae, New Combinations in Ledebouria. Bothalia 42,1.
Pfosser, M. & Speta, F. 1999. Phylogenetics of Hyacinthaceae based on plastid DNA Sequences. Annals of the Missouri Botanic Garden, 86(4), 852-875.
Hankey, A. (2019). Proposed English common names for African hyacinths. Plantlife SA, 47(7).
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