The Bugle Lily: Watsonia

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Mary Gutierrez

One by-product of my obsession with any bulb, tuber, corm or rhizome that is native to South Africa is the occasional success story. My goal is to root out (ouch!) those plants that will survive in my garden without heroic measures on my part. Anything that requires a tent and a space heater when the temperature plummets won't cut it. Despite my best intentions, I usually don’t even manage to toss a blanket or plastic sheet over my most vulnerable plants. So sooner or later, they bite the dust.

This spring, I’m thrilled that my small clump of bugle lily, (Watsonia pillansii) a cormous South African plant with evergreen foliage, is actually still green. Considering that this winter included hurricane-force winds, a month of record rainfall and temperatures down to 17 F, it’s a notable situation. It doesn’t look great—but nothing in my garden does yet.

If you like crocosmia or species gladiolus, watsonia will be right up your alley. All are members of the iris family (Iridaceae), and have similar foliage. Leaves of bugle lily grow to about 18 inches tall and have a clumping habit rather than the spreading habit of crocosmia. If you grasp a leaf between your thumb and forefinger, you’ll notice that its edges are thickened.

Like crocosmia, the bugle lily is a hummingbird magnet. In South Africa the hummingbird’s counterpart, the sunbird, takes care of pollination duties. Watsonia blooms in midsummer, from the end of June into July, depending on the weather. The flowers are three inches long and grow on a two-ranked spike to over two feet tall. Bugle lily most often produces flowers in shades of orange which can range from deep reddish-orange to pastel peach. There are rare pink forms, but they are probably not available in the US yet.

The corms of W. pillansii should be planted four or five inches deep in well-drained soil. It will thrive in a sunny perennial border. Because it is from the Eastern Cape, a summer-rainfall area, bugle lily will be happiest with some summer water. It is reliably hardy to USDA zone 8, despite what reference books say—and possibly even colder. When clumps become congested, dig, divide and replant in early fall.

There are many other beautiful species of watsonia, but W. pillansii is the only one that has been proven reliable in Europe and the US and is available from some specialist nurseries. I’m growing other watsonias from seed, so perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to report another pleasant springtime surprise.

Watsonia pillansii in the author's garden.

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