Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cape balsam

There are very few flowering plants in our garden that are as low-maintenance, easy to grow and long-blooming as cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens), a clumping succulent from South Africa. I bought a couple of 4" containers three years ago, and now have six or seven clumps in various parts of our yard.

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Several clumps of cape balsam (Bulbine frutescens) in the planting strip outside our front yard fence
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The flowers last for a long time
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The yellow flowers complement the chartreuse blooms of the
Euphorbia x martinii behind it

Cape balsam doesn’t need much soil—often the roots are just below the surface or even creep along on top of it. To divide it, just yank out a section and stick it in some soil—voilà, you’ve got a new plant. It grows very vigorously when it receives regular irrigation but can make do with very little water, as evidenced by its fleshy, grass-like leaves that contain a gel similar to aloe. In fact, cape balsam is used medicinally much the same way as Aloe barbadensis (the plant commonly referred to as “aloe vera”).

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Closeup of a flower spike

Cape balsam is hardy in our zone 9b climate (the literature lists its hardiness as 20-25°F), and it blooms from late winter all the way into late fall.

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This is a rather inhospitable spot behind the remaining Bradford pear tree outside our front yard fence. Since it’s hard to dig holes in this area because of the tree roots, I mounded up some soil and plopped down a couple of divisions of cape balsam as well as two Aloe striatula I had propagated from cuttings brought home from a vacation trip to the coast a couple of summers ago. The cape balsam took root in no time and is now flowering with abandon. This area is still a work in progress but the cape balsam is adding a nice splash of color.

In addition to the regular yellow-flowering cape balsam, there is a smaller orange-flowered cultivar called ‘Hallmark’. I have two specimens, and in my experience not only are they slower growing than the species, they also don’t bloom as liberally. We don’t have one in bloom right now, but here is a good photo.

The UC Davis Arboretum has included cape balsam on its list of 100 All Stars, “tough, reliable plants that have been tested in the Arboretum, are easy to grow, don’t need a lot of water, have few problems with pests or diseases, and have outstanding qualities in the garden.”

1 comment:

  1. Yip here in South Africa it's a great plant and I have collected a few species and cultivars !
    Split them up after a year or two to keep them neat, more food gives more flowers!
    They are great to rub the sap onto bites and stings.

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