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Freesias are one of the most fragrant spring flowers and are said to symbolise sweetness, friendship and trust.

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These little beauties are sure to capture your heart and are grown worldwide for their cheerful colours and fabulously fragrant flowers which last long in a vase and will perfume an entire room, bringing spring right into your home. Freesias remain one of the most sought after cut flowers commercially, and the plants are also cultivated for their perfume. Today, the essential oil is widely used in soaps, scented candles, potpourri and body oils.

It was probably this alluring scent that brought freesias to the attention of Christian P Ecklon when he discovered this little flower in South Africa. In fact, he was so taken by this little perennial that he named it in honour of Dr Friedrich Freese, a German physician and botanist from Kiel, and a pupil and friend of Ecklon’s.  Consequently, freesias are said to symbolise sweetness, friendship and trust.

Freesias 'White' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'White' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'White' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesia belongs in the large and very diverse Iris (Iridaceae) family with species distributed all over the world. The greatest concentration of freesia species grow naturally across southern Africa, as do many other well-known ornamentals like: Gladiolus, Sparaxis, Tritonia, Moraea, Watsonia, Ixia, Crocosmia, Babiana, Dierama and of course, Freesia.

In the southern winter rainfall areas of South Africa we have about 16 species of freesia which are endemic to this region, meaning that they grow wild only here and nowhere else in the world. In these regions they dry out and become totally dormant during the long, dry and hot summer months, but once they are nurtured by the cooler weather and ample rains of autumn and winter, they start shooting again in autumn, grow vigorously through autumn and explode into bloom in spring.

Freesia has a rather complicated and confusing history with lots of wrong names, misapplication of names and synonymy over the years, and the first two species that were cultivated in Europe in 1766 were both placed in different genera, and it was only in 1866 that Freesia was described as a distinct genus. These early collections of were grown only by collectors, and it was only when yellow-flowered plants of F. leichtlinii were discovered in 1874 by Max Leichtlin, in the Orto Botanic Gardens at Padua, that freesia entered the world of horticulture. The Orto Botanico di Padova is a botanical garden in Padua, in the north-eastern part of Italy. Founded in 1545 by the Venetian Republic, it is the world's oldest academic botanical garden that is still in its original location. How the plants got there is a mystery and nobody Freesia 'Pink' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesia 'Pink' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesia 'Pink' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zacould remember who had planted them there, so the type was named Freesia leichtlinii after Max who spotted them.

Max started propagating Freesia leichtlinii and distributed the material widely. These flowers, although labelled yellow, actually appear cream with yellow markings, and their backs were flushed with maroon. Victorian gardeners welcomed this newcomer with enthusiasm, but it was not until Freesia alba first appeared in the English nursery trade in 1878 that freesias quickly spread to Europe and North America. This freesia caused quite a sensation, appearing in almost every horticultural publication of note in both Europe and America in the years following its introduction.

Breeding began immediately after F. alba appeared on the market and continues to this day, resulting in hundreds of hybrids and varieties, available in mixed or single colours ranging from dark purple to lilac, red, orange, yellow, pink, white, and various bi-colours. Freesias, with their grassy, sword-shaped leaves may only grow 20 to 30cm tall, but what they lack in stature they sure make up for in flower power and fragrance, so treat yourself to a packet or two of freesia corms this autumn.

Freesias last well in a boquetFreesias last well in a boquetFreesias last well in a boquetIn the Garden & Home:

Freesias are beautiful additions to any garden, whether you cluster them in beds or create a colourful display in containers. Also, by planting the bulbs at weekly intervals you can extend the blooming season. They can also make gorgeous houseplants and are very long-lasting cut flowers, so when they are in bloom, feel free to cut the flowers for striking bouquets and sweet fragrance - the more you pick them, the more they will bloom.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Freesias 'Red with yellow centre' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'Red with yellow centre' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'Red with yellow centre' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaIn South Africa, freesias are best planted from mid-April to May for a stunning display of blooms from August to September. Freesias are only hardy to moderate frost and severe frost will damage their leaves, so if you live in extremely cold regions, plant them into pots which can be placed on a protected patio or entranceway. Find a place in your garden which receives sun to light shade, in warmer winter regions the plants will need some protection from the hot midday and afternoon sun.

Freesias will adapt to most well-drained garden soils, but thrive on light yet fertile, slightly acid soils. Prepare the beds well before planting, adding some additional compost or acid compost if your soil is alkaline. The bulbs (corms) look like small, slim onions and need to be planted with the pointed end facing up. Space them about 7cm apart and plant them 5cm deep.  Blooming should begin about 10 to 12 weeks after planting the corms.

Freesias must be watered regularly but do not like to be waterlogged – allow the soil to almost totally dry out between each watering. If planted in good soil freesias will not require additional feeding, but an occasional feeding with a specialised bulb feeder won’t do any harm.

Growing freesias in containers is easy if you have a good quality, well-drained soil. Almost any commercially available potting medium will work fine. Make sure there are adequate drainage holes, and plant the bulbs closer together than you would in the ground. Check the soil for moisture often because plants in pots dry out quicker than those growing in the ground.  Feeding with a specialised bulb feeder may be required if you are growing in pots.
If you wish to keep the corms for next seasons planting, don't cut the leaves off the plants after they have finished blooming, as the leaves will Freesias 'Lilac' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'Lilac' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zaFreesias 'Lilac' Picture courtesy www.hadeco.co.zacontinue gathering sunlight to create food through photosynthesis and strengthen the bulb for the future. Continue watering, and later, as the plant slips into dormancy and the leaves start to turn yellow and die, the foliage many be removed and the bulbs lifted for next season. If the soil drains well, the bulbs can also be left in the ground.  

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

As the weather warms up in spring, watch out for thrips and aphids and spray if required. Slugs and snails can also damage the leaves.

Warning:

No part of freesia is toxic to humans. However, even if it isn’t toxic, ingesting large amounts of any non-food plant can cause stomach upset or discomfort, so keep an eye on small children in the garden. Freesia is also safe for dogs and cats. However, if pets ever exhibit any symptoms of poisoning, including vomiting, severe diarrhoea, uncontrollable drooling or lethargy, you should call a vet right away.

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