The bizarrely beautiful ‘Jewel of the Desert’

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Daubenya 'Mixed' Picture courtesy HadecoDaubenya 'Mixed' Picture courtesy HadecoFind out how to grow this little bulb so aptly called the “jewel of the desert”- one of the most showy of our indigenous species . In South Africa it is planted from March to May, to flower in winter and spring.

Although this little jewel only grows +-5cm tall, it is rather bizarre- looking, growing only two thick leaves which lie almost flat on the ground. The leaves and the flowers are produced at the same time, and the densely-flowered red or yellow umbels are guaranteed to catch the eye if placed in a prominent position in the garden. They are held on short stems, and are thick and sort of waxy, curving inward to create a nest around the centre of the flower. The flowers are pollinated by butterflies, monkey beetles, sunbirds, and bees, depending on the species; and the flowers are followed by papery capsules with smooth and glossy, black seeds.

Its Latin name is "Daubenya" and it is available countrywide from Hadeco but they are currently sold out. Pre-orders are taken from early February to late May, for delivery from mid -March to the end of May. Other SA suppliers sell them, so search online to buy.

Daubenya belongs to the beautiful Hyacinthaceae family of plants which has 700 to 900 species, many of which are indigenous to the winter rainfall regions of SA. They are usually deciduous, or rarely evergreen, bulbous plants, several with brightly coloured flowers.  

Other SA beauties in this family include:Pineapple Flower, Wildepynappel, Umathunga (Eucomis autumnalis). Lachenalia, Cape Cowslip, Cape Hyacinth, Viooltjie (Lachenalia), Chincherinchee (Ornithogalum). Members can click on highlighted text to read more.

Daubenya was once thought to consist of only one species but was revised in 2002 to include eight species, namely: D. alba , D. aurea, D. capensis, D. comata, D. marginata, D. namaquensis, D. stylosa and D. zeyheri

Daubenya aurea has a very limited range, and is only found growing high in the Roggeveld Mountains, between Sutherland and Middelpos, at altitudes around 500 metres above sea level, and on flat, low-lying, dolerite-derived red clay soils, which can become damp during the rainy season. Daubenya aurea is also frost tolerant and is often covered by snow in its natural environment, and it appears that low temperatures induce better flowering.

This rare South African bulb has two colour forms. The more common one is a brilliant red and the other is a rich canary yellow. The flowers usually appear in spring, mainly from late August to mid-September. The yellow populations consistently come into bloom about one or two weeks before the red ones. Wild populations are typically uniformly coloured, although red populations will often contain occasional yellow morphs, whereas yellow populations may include a few plants in which are flushed reddish at the tips.

The current Red List status of Daubenya aurea is Endangered (EN) and it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild due to the recent expansion of cultivation in the low-lying clay flats. Field observations indicate that plants are subjected to heavy grazing and trampling. The Indigenous Bulb Association of South Africa (IBSA) monitors this plant every year.

In the Garden:

The jewel of the desert is a spectacular miniature species for pot culture, which suits most gardeners perfectly because the pots can be stored during the dormant season in a dry part of the garden, and when in full bloom the small pots can be tucked in amongst other pots to display them at their best.

However, if your climate is right, they also perform well in in rock gardens and are ideal for water-wise gardens. Large clumps give the best effect, and if you are using  them in garden beds with other plants, ensure that they all have the same growing requirements, and can be kept on the dry side in summer. Plant these little jewels in the garden where they will be best appreciated, and where they will not be overshadowed by larger perennials and bulbs.

Cultivation/Propagation:

The jewel of the desert grows best in the winter rainfall regions of South Africa, but also does well in the summer rainfall regions if the plants can be kept rather dry during summer. For this reason, gardeners in the summer rainfall regions most often lift the bulbs in November and store them dry until next season, or they opt to grow them in pots which can simply be moved when the plants are dormant. In the winter rainfall regions the bulbs can be left in the ground, but should not be watered with the rest of garden in summer.

No matter whether you are planting them into pots or into garden beds, this species needs well-drained, fertile soil, and thrives in neutral to slightly acidic soils composed of sandy loam and peat, or clayey loam. In pots try a compost mixture which also contains peat, perlite and washed river sand.

The jewel of the desert is frost hardy and even takes snow. It loves full sun, and during the growing season likes to be kept evenly moist at root level. To take the guesswork out of watering, invest in a moisture meter. Feed monthly with Hadeco bulb food or a similar product.  Space the bulbs 20cm apart, and plant at a depth of 4 to 5cm.

As soon as the leaves start to die back before the dormant period, stop watering and leave them dry, or lift and store them until next autumn when they can be exposed to sunlight and water again to awaken them from their  dormancy. 

Propagation:

Although Daubenya can be propagated by division, because the bulbs don’t readily produce offsets, they are best propagated from seed. However, plants grown from seed can talk 3 years to flower, so investing in some bulbs would be worthwhile unless you wish to propagate on a large scale.  Harvest the ripe seeds and sow them immediately into a compost mixture which also contains peat, perlite and coarse grit. If the trays are put outside in a shady place, germination usually takes about 6 weeks. Plants should ideally be watered with rainwater, which is free of lime. Once germinated, allow the plants to grow and then go dormant before re-potting them.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Daubenya aurea seems to be largely free of serious pest or disease problems in the garden. The flowers must be removed as soon as they start to fade to reduce the risk of botrytis infection, to which they are prone. This fungus affects many plant species, although its most notable host may be wine grapes. In viticulture, it is commonly known as "botrytis bunch rot"; in horticulture, it is usually called "grey mould".

Warning:

We did not find this plant on any poisonous lists but it is always wise to supervise young children around plants, as well as pets.