The beautifully scented Nelson’s Slimy Lily is almost impossible to kill in the garden!

Albuca 'White' Picture courtesy HadecoAlbuca 'White' Picture courtesy HadecoIf you are looking for a beautiful low maintenance coastal plant which is also very frost hardy, water-wise, grows in full sun or shade, and which is very hard to kill try the Nelson’s slimy lily. Find out all about growing it and how to use it effectively in the garden. Read more below.

Nelson’s Slimy Lily, Natal Albuca, Slymstok, Maerman, intelezi, umaphipha-intelezi, umababaza - Albuca nelsonii (=Ornithogalum nelsonii)

If you’re wondering about its strange common name “slime lily”, don’t worry, it only refers to the presence of a viscous, watery sap in the leaves and flower stems.  This beautiful species is found growing in large colonies, in grasslands, open scrubland, and on rocky outcrops and steep littoral cliffs, in mainly the summer rainfall areas of the country.

It is mostly a coastal species of the Eastern Cape, where it favours partially shaded areas in grasslands and shady areas on cliffs and rocky slopes close to the ocean, occurring at an altitude of 30 to 170m. In KwaZulu-Natal it also grows close to the ocean, and thrives in the Midlands, but its distribution spreads across nearly the entire province, and extends into parts of Gauteng, Swaziland and Lesotho.

Although these plants can take frost, in cold regions they become totally dormant in winter, and generally they prefer areas where frosts are not too severe, and where the annual rainfall is moderate to high.

Nelson’s slimy lily is a very robust, bulbous perennial, which is generally semi-evergreen and grows in clumps. The large, fleshy bulbs are always partially exposed above the ground, and have numerous layers of thin, papery, pale greenish, protective scales around the bulb, and the long, vivid green, strap-shaped leaves are rather sappy.

Sadly, they are becoming deplorably scarce in the wild, but when they are seen in their natural habitat in full bloom, the plants are hard to miss with their tall flower spikes reaching anything from 60cm to 1.2 in height. The large flowers are and held proudly erect above the foliage, and have a somewhat waxy texture, and the petals have a semi-translucent ivory colour and pretty green mid-stripes. They are good cut flowers for the home, and emit a delightful strong scent reminiscent of almonds. Flowering starts in spring and continues through early summer (September to November).

The flowers are followed by rather fleshy egg-shaped, three-celled capsules containing numerous small seeds.

Little is known about the pollination biology of Albuca nelsonii, but at Kirstenbosch, honey bees, carpenter bees, and various beetles have been observed visiting the flowers.

For a long time Albuca nelsonii was only found in specialist collections, but thankfully it is now available for gardens, and comes highly recommended. Hadeco stocks them, so order yours by clicking here.  Deliveries start in September until the end of October.

Uses:

An infusion made from Albuca nelsonii bulbs and tubers of Kniphofia species, known as “icacane”, is taken as an emetic as protection against sorcery.

In the Garden:

Part of this plants versatility is its ease of growth and its ability to grow in sun or semi-shade, and because it flourishes in coastal gardens, makes a lovely addition to a seaside garden.

Because it withstands considerable neglect, has a strong root system, and grows quickly in poor soils, it a good choice as a pioneer species for disturbed areas, or areas where other more sensitive plants may struggle. 

This species is well suited for xeriscaping, and majestic when grown in rockeries where the partially exposed bulbs can be shown off to great effect. It looks good all year, even when not in bloom and is also excellent in retaining walls and on embankments.

It is also a good plant for those difficult areas that are in shade for part of the year, as well as those dry shade areas under trees that are matted with roots.

In larger informal gardens, it is magnificent if planted in massed borders, and in smaller gardens it can be grown in pots, or simply popped into any bare patches in the garden.

It makes a lovely cut flower, and the abundance of scented flowers it produces makes it perfect for scented, cutting, and cottage style gardens

Cultivation:

Nelson’s slimy lily is a fast growing evergreen which can be planted in full sun or in semi-shade. It is very hardy, tolerating frost and drought. Under prolonged drought conditions the plant will go totally dormant, only to shoot once again when the rains arrive; and although the foliage may suffer damage from low temperatures, the bulb itself will survive if covered in winter with a protective, insulating, dry mulch layer.

It adapts to most garden soils with a neutral to mildly alkaline or acidic pH as long as the drainage is good, but thrives on sandy or gravelly, dry and rocky soils with a high organic content. Once the plants are established organic fertilisers and some compost can be applied seasonally to keep them looking at their best and potted specimens also do better when fed fairly regularly.

Space the bulbs 5 to 15cm apart and plant them at a depth of about 2 to 5cm, but make sure that at least a quarter to half of the bulb is exposed.

Albuca has low to moderate water needs, and if rainfall is good will not need much extra watering during the growing season, except during prolonged hot and dry spells, when a deep drenching about once a week should keep the plants looking at their best. Try to keep the bulbs dry in winter when they are dormant.

Propagation:

Once you have Albuca in the garden, you can have it forever because it multiplies by producing offsets from the mother plant, and these can be split and planted elsewhere in the garden, or grown on in small pots or seedling trays in a fertile, well-draining soil mixture, and planted out once all danger of frost is over. 

It can also be grown from seed sown in spring or early summer, but will take 3 to 4 seasons to produce blooms.  If growing from seed, harvest them directly from the plant as soon as the pods have dried sufficiently and split open. Seeds are best sown in early to mid-spring, into a well-drained, fertile mixture of sand, loam and compost. If the trays are placed in a warm, brightly lit area, and the soil is kept moist, germination is quite rapid and even.

Problems Pests and Diseases:

Check the leaves and bulbs of your plants regularly for signs of caterpillar infestation as these can severely damage or even kill your plants if they are not removed or controlled by spraying. If left, birds will often arrive to gobble them up, but in an enclosed system, spraying is normally recommended. Try Margaret Robert’s caterpillar spray.

Warning:

Parts of this bulb are said to be toxic, especially upon ingestion, and the sap, as well as the bulb, may cause skin irritation when handled.