Rare bulb flowers

One of the rarest bulbs in cultivation is Worsleya rayneri (also known as Worsleya procera), the Empress of Brazil. A very green-fingered gardener in Omokoroa, near Tauranga, has recently had it in flower but says she doesn’t do anything special to encourage it.

Worsleya rayneri in flower in an Omokoroa garden. Photo: Barry Curtis

Jean Richardson has a garden full of interesting plants, and this one is no exception. In fact, she has two sets of bulbs, both sourced from Auckland plantsman Terry Hatch (Joy Plants). “My mother bought the first one about 30 years ago and she had that for 10 years but unfortunately didn’t live long enough to see it flower,” Jean says. She took that bulb on and the very next year it came into bloom – and has been flowering ever since.

Abbie Jury has written that it took her bulbs 13 years to come into flower, so not a plant for the impatient. The largest plant in the Amaryllis family, Worsleya rayneri is unfortunately disappearing rapidly in Brazil, according to the Strange Wonderful Things website.

Jean later bought her own Worsleya rayneri bulb, so has two tubs of them. She keeps the bulbs in a warm spot “under a roof”, either in the open end of a shed or under eaves.

This year the mother plant in the tub pictured above had 10 trumpets on one stem while the ‘pup’ that’s pictured had 5 trumpets. “I had one large bulb that never flowered,” Jean says, “but it made lots of little plantlets so I took them all off – but it killed the main bulb. So that was a hard lesson learned. Apparently, you can take one or two of the pups off, but not the whole lot.”

In their native Brazil, the bulbs grow on steep granite cliffs (ie, well drained), fully exposed to wind, rain and sun, and constantly subjected to mist from waterfalls. It produces large clusters of gorgeous lilac-blue flowers, speckled mauve within, blooming in mid-summer on stems up to 1.5m tall with flowers lasting up to 10 days if not pollinated. Read more at the Pacific Bulb Society website. Tauranga plantsman Bill Dijk notes that Worsleya rayneri is very exacting in its requirements, which makes it rare in cultivation.

Jean has read all this but modestly describes her own care of the bulbs as minimal, feeding and watering them “when I’m passing or remember to”. They get a handful of what everything else gets, generally blood and bone or Nitrophoska Blue. “Occasionally I’ll throw water over them to try and mimic nature and so far, it hasn’t done them any harm.” When the bulbs are almost in flower, she moves the tubs more into the open.

The book, Bulbs for NZ Gardeners and Collectors by Jack Hobbs and Terry Hatch, recommends watering sparingly in winter, gradually increasing moisture as temperatures rise until flooding regularly in midsummer before the bulbs flower in late summer. “This will produce rapid growth and one, occasionally two, flower spikes per bulb.” An annual application of acid fertiliser in spring is recommended.

Established plants will produce a few offshoots each year but these are slow growing. Root rot can be a problem if the bulbs get too wet in winter and the greater bulb fly will hollow out larger bulbs causing them to produce offsets but reducing flower production.

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