April 5, 2006

Propagating Lachenalia

Lachenalia culture
Pollinate Lachenalia with a soft paint brush, just a gentle swipe with mimic a sun bird or a honey bee.

Many gardeners who keep a cool greenhouse are familiar with Lachenalia or Cape Hyacinths. Strangely enough, even though you may have never heard of this plant, some of my gardening books from the early 19th Century list dozens of species which were imported for cold greenhouse culture. Ridiculously easy, perhaps even for the cool windowsill or unheated room, the genus remains difficult to find for most gardeners. few nurseries sell bulbs, which leaves seed as the primary source for home collectors.

When bulbs are available, these are easy plants to propagate as Lachenalia can be propagated in a number of ways. First, you can pollinate your own plants ( the seed is easy to grow - relax, I know this all sounds so impossible!), but even better, if you can obtain a few bulbs for your winter garden ( yes, these are winter growers under glass), Lachenalia can be propagated by a strange, forgotten method which you may have not seen before - leaf cuttings. Leaf segments will produce bulblets in just a couple of months. Pretty cool, right?

Simple crosses can be made between species as well as within cultivars, but I prefer to keep my species pure, which is easier in the winter ( unless the greenhouse vents open and bees enter the greenhouse, but to be honest, I am not certain that lachenalia are insect pollinated, as most of these smaller South African bulbs are bird or even desert rat pollinated. Use a small camel hair watercolor brush, and you know the method - think back to your high school biology class. Simply sweep the brush across the stamens, being sure to get pollen onto the stigma. Some species produce a tiny cloud of pollen, which can drop out of the blossom when touched with the brush. Use this as a test, as the time of day is important - the winter  mornings can be damp and cold in the greenhouse.  Be sure to wait for a sunny day, so that all the sexy bits are dry enough.  Naturally, a clean brush is essential.

Raising lachenalia from seed
Lachenalia seed pods when ripe. The seed is large and easy to remove.

Seeds will form by June, and shortly after the pods will split. Different species produce different capsules. When you must collect seed at this point, check the capsule daily to watch for splitting, being careful to get them before they drop (if they do, just don't repot for a season. I have some pots full of seedlings, even though I thought I had collected all of the seed. Since Lachenalia are summer dormant in the Northern Hemisphere, (but our Australian friends are probably just getting their season under way) they must be kept dry all summer after the plant goes dormant, and watering started again in September. The same holds for seeds. I just store them in an envelope or sow them in dry medium, and start watering them in September. I plant the seed very deep in the pot, perhaps 2 or 3 inches down, which I started after seeing that the young seedlings eventually pull themselves down to the bottom of the pots, via contractile roots, and the bulbs lengthen to adjust. By planting deeply, I can save a year or two presumable saving some energy that the little geophytes were wasting in their attempt to relocate to a more favorable latitude, and thus, I now get flowers after three years instead of five. But wait...there is an even faster way to get bulbs...Leaf cuttings.

Propagating Lachenalia
Lachenalia leaf cuttings roots in a mixture of sand and Perlite. Leaf cuttings will produce small bulblets in a few weeks.

Raising Lachenalia from leaf cuttings

The leaf cutting method is by far, the easiest way to propagate many Lachenalia species, particularly the larger and showier Lachenalia aloides selections. Lachenalia generally produce only a pair leaves, so the only downside is that one leaf per plant can be harvested. Cut one leaf with a sterile razor blade or knife and cut it into three pieces, marking the bottom end with a marker, as this is the only end that will root and produce bulblets. Dip the bottom end into rooting gel, and place it in to a flat of fast draining yet moist, perlite and sharp sand.

Place the pan into a bottom heated propagating case, and within a couple of months, a few bulbils will grow from the bottom of each cutting . The disticial leave closest to the center of the plant produces the most bulbs, confirmed by research in Holland, so I only cut into three pieces now instead of five or six, as I once used to. Leaves rooted in January, will produce a dozen or more small bulbs by the end of that first growing season. These bulbs reach blooming size much faster, I have had L. aloides ssp. quadricolor bloom in the second year, so this seems to be the far faster way, and seeds are the best way if you want many bulbs, and one can't really have too many Lachenalia, can they!


  1. Very helpful - thanks!

    In April 2013 I was given 1 pea sized L Bulbifera and 2 tiny bulbils. I put them in a 3" pot on my kitchen window sill. In November 2013 the pea sizes bulb produced 2 leaves and 1 flower stalk with 3 coral red bells. The 2 bulbils each produced 1 leaf.
    After the flowers died there were 2 black seeds which I put on the surface by their mother. There were also several bulbils. Now (Nov 2014) I have just separated them. The pea sized bulb is now cherry sized and growing strongly and there are 8 bulbils which I've planted around her in the same 3" pot with a little added compost. Very prolific!
    I'm anticipating even more flowers to enjoy at eye level as I work at the kitchen sink!

  2. I have just 'discovered' this plant following an article in RHS January 2015 magazine. You have posted so many interesting articles. Many thanks. I am looking forward to starting up a small collection, as I think some colourful bulbs flowering in my conservatory at this time of the year will just the thing when my garden is mostly put away for the winter months.


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