Invest in some Berg Lilies this season, you won’t be disappointed!

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Berg Lily Picture courtesy HadecoBerg Lily Picture courtesy HadecoThe tall and regal Berg Lily flowers for a long time in late summer and autumn and is sought after for its fragrant, long lasting cut flowers. Read more below on how to grow and care for this plant.

The tall and regal berg lily is also called the “summer hyacinth” because it is dormant in winter and flowers in summer. Other common names include: Cape Hyacinth, Berglelie, Kaapse Hiasint, isidwa esimhlope. In spring the plant quickly produces its erect, grey-green, strap-shaped leaves, and anytime from December to February it produces sturdy flower stems which can reach up to 1.2m in height, and for up to six weeks they are adorned with pendant, waxy, bell-shaped flowers, up to 3cm long. The Berg lily is mostly pure white, but the tube is sometimes pale green on the outside with a very pale green median band running up the back of each lobe. An added bonus is that the flowers are fragrant and last very long in the vase.

The name Ornithogalum is from the Greek “ornithos”, meaning bird, and “gala” which means milk, referring to the milk-like secretions produced in pigeons’ crops for feeding their young. In Ancient Greek the term “bird’s milk” was commonly used to describe something beautiful. The species name “candicans” means ‘becoming pure white’, in reference to the pure white flowers of this species, which distinguishes it from the other three species which produce creamy yellow or greenish flowers.

This lily was previously known as Galtonia candicans, but was reclassified in 2004 as Ornithogalum candicans, when all of the Galtonia species, and several other genera, were moved into the Ornithogalum genus, which belongs to the beautiful Hyacinthaceae sub-family of bulbous flowering plants within the family Asparagaceae.

Ornithogalum is the largest genus of the family Hyacinthaceae in southern Africa. It contains a total of more than 200 species, of which approximately 123 occur in southern Africa. In South Africa, the vast majority occur in the winter rainfall regions of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape, but there are about 3 or 4 species from the southern Drakensberg Mountains and their foothills.

Ornithogalum candicans grows abundantly in the summer rainfall regions, on the slopes of the Drakensberg in Mpumalanga, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, and the Eastern Cape, at altitudes of 1,350 to 2,150m. It is not threatened in the wild, and thrives in open, damp grasslands where it favours grassy hollows on the slopes of hills.

This species was discovered by Thomas Cooper, who found it growing at the side of a stream in the foothills of the De Beer's Pass, northeast of Van Reenen's Pass, in the Klip River District of KwaZulu-Natal.  It was initially described by Baker in 1870 as Hyacinthus candicans, but was transferred shortly afterwards to the genus Galtonia by the French botanist Decaisne. However, a recent study of the hyacinth family in sub-Saharan Africa resulted in the plant being re-classified from Galtonia into the large genus Ornithogalum.

Uses:

In the past the flowers were very popular to use as Christmas decorations, and were transported by sea to Europe and the United States. The flowers were prepared for their journey by picking them while they were still in bud, and the cut stem was dipped in hot wax before packing. Upon arrival at their destinations, several weeks later, the waxed tip was cut off and the stems placed in water to stimulate the flowers to open.

Today, the berg lily is transported by air, and remains a very popular cut flower because it can remain fresh in a vase for weeks, even a month or more. Because of this trait the flowers were initially commercially cultivated around Darling, but later production spread to other suitable areas.

In the Garden:

The berg lily has been commonly cultivated in America England for many years, and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. Because each bulb produces several flowering stems in succession and blooms for a long time, the berg lily is an ideal garden subject, providing valuable flowers in the garden when the summer blooms are fading, and it works well in the middle of a perennial bed where it can stand well above the other plants.

The long-lasting, pure white flowers stand out well in any flower arrangement, making the berg lily essential for cutting, scented, and cottage gardens. It is just as effective in tropical-looking gardens, where it blends and tones down the bright colours of many tropical flowers and foliage.

For the most striking result in the garden, plant a number of bulbs together in a mixed bed, about 15 to 20cm apart

Cultivation/Propagation:

Since the bulbs are dormant in winter, the berg lily is extremely frost hardy, and tolerates temperatures down to -18°C. It is ideal for areas with high summer rainfall, and cold, dry winters. The plants will do best in a wind-protected spot, and prefer full sun, but will take a little shade. In the winter rainfall regions the bulbs will need to be lifted in autumn, or protected from winter rainfall, and during the summer months they will need regular watering.

In South Africa the bulbs are planted out from late winter to early spring (October), with the top of the bulb just under the surface of the soil. Ensure that the planting bed has been thoroughly dug over and enriched with compost.  Good drainage is essential to prevent the bulbs from rotting, so add a 5cm layer of washed river sand underneath the bulb (available from garden centres). The river sand helps to protect the tuber from rot.

Feed occasionally with a water soluble fertiliser for bulbs or flowers, like Pokon Flowering Plant Food during the growing season to keep the plants in a good condition.

Water the plants regularly in spring through summer, until the plants stop flowering. Then just allow the bulbs to go dormant naturally and do not remove the leaves, because as they die down they nourish the bulbs for next season’s growth. Once the bulbs are completely dormant, mark the spots where they are growing to prevent damage by digging etc., and although they can take some winter watering along with the rest of the garden, as long as the soil drains well, it’s best to try to keep them as dry as possible until new shoots appear again in spring.

Berg lilies can be left to grow undisturbed in the same position for up to four years before they become overcrowded and require splitting.

Ornithogalum can be propagated seed, or by division after flowering - lift the bulbs in winter, divide and replant them again in late winter or early spring. Freshly harvested seed can be sown in spring, and germination should occur within a month, with the plants flowering in their second season.

All species of Ornithogalum grow readily from seed, and some species can even become a ‘weedy’ nuisance in gardens; however, Ornithogalum candicans is not as prolific a seeder as other species.   
All species of Ornithogalum grow readily from seed, and some species can even become a ‘weedy’ nuisance in gardens; however, Ornithogalum candicans will seed itself but is not as prolific as other species.  

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If Ornithogalum are grown correctly, they are relatively pest and disease free, but watch out for slugs and snails, as they will devour your plants if left uncontrolled.

Warning:

Most species are toxic to animals, and if ingested result in a condition known as krimpsiekte.
Ornithogalum contain deadly alkaloids and cardenolides that sometimes result in the death of horses and cattle if ingested.

Poison symptoms include: Nausea, salivation, vomiting, diarrhoea, and shortness of breath, pain, burning, and swelling of lips, tongue, and throat. Skin irritation can occur following prolonged contact.

Always discourage house pets from chewing on plants, and always supervise young children in the garden.