Lachenalia, bulbous perennials with spikes of tubular flowers from the winter rainfall region of South Africa, are named in honour of the eminent Swiss botanist Werner de Lachenal (1736-1800). Commonly called the Cape Cowslip although not related to Primula veris, the true primrose, they have journeyed through the taxonomic kingdom, with my 1996 A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Brickell) hedging its bets by putting them into the Hyacinthaceae or Liliaceae family. They are currently claimed by the Asparagaceae but there has been much renaming, clumping and splitting of groups – all summarised in the recent Botanical Magazine Monograph: The Genus Lachenalia by Graham Duncan. In the wild some species are becoming rare or threatened with extinction due to agriculture and building activities, whereas in Western Australia L. reflexa is now spreading through the Eucalyptus forests and has been declared a pest.
Exbury Garden has a huge collection of Lachenalia and in the spring puts on a display in its gallery. Nicholas de Rothschild welcomed the interest groups, (including Dorset Plant Heritage), invited along to view the plants
and then Theo Herselman enthusiastically described what we would be seeing. He explained how low light levels during the winter months has led to the leaves and flower stalks being much longer than usual as they strive to reach the sun.
Visitors, who had travelled from all over the country, circled the display, taking photographs and comparing notes. There was also some discussion about the pronounciation of the name – is it Lackenalia or Lashenalia. Given the provenance of the Swiss botanist, surely it’s more like to be with a guttural roll as in the Scottish word loch.
This display is open to the public but we were taken for a behind the scenes tour of the Glasshouses; vast Venlo style houses originally used for propagating Rhododendrons, but now almost completely given over to the cultivation of plants from the Cape.
Our guide for this part of the day was Bill Squire, recently awarded National Plant Collection status for his Lachenalia and he explained some of the recent changes to the naming of the plants.
There was some gently teasing of John David (Botanist from RHS Wisley) about the renaming, shown here with Caroline Stone, member of the Devon Plant Heritage group but here representing the Nerine and Amaryllid Society.
Bill talked us through a selection of his plants
particularly pointing out two forms of Lachenalia carnosa, one white and the other pink.
One of my favourites is L. mutabilis, somewhat reminiscent of the film Avatar,
but choose your own favourite from this gallery of images
The Lachenalia Exhibition runs until the 6th April 2014.