Tuesday 9 November 2010

'Grow Bulbs' by Graham Duncan

Sparaxis tricolor at Biekous, Western Cape, 2004

At lunchtime I came in from a morning potting-up bulbs, including corms of  the gorgeous Sparaxis tricolor seen above, to find a copy of the new edition of Graham Duncan's Grow Bulbs waiting for me in the post. When I heard that he was publishing a new edition I had difficulty recalling the first - it is a slim little thing of only 64 pages, now spectacularly superseded by this new 390-pager, the biggest so far of the very useful Kirstenbosch Gardening Series published by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.

Graham Duncan has been 'Mr Bulbs' at Kirstenbosch for almost as long as anyone can remember - he has been working there since he was a very tender age - and this book distils his lifetime's experience growing many of South Africa's 2500 geophytes. It will undoubtedly be of huge assistance to anyone interested in growing such plants, though for those outside South Africa it should be noted that it is written for growers there, and suggestions will have to be adapted for our growing conditions. The biggest problem, I find, in growing the winter-growing South African bulbs here is the low light intensity of the British winter: even in what Capetonians call winter, when they are bundled up in longjohns and the like, they enjoy a far closer relationship with the sun than we do in the corresponding months. At least we don't have to contend with pests such as porcupines that can be devastating to bulbous plants in the Cape.

Part of the bulb collection at Kirstenbosch, curated by Graham Duncan, September 2010

Lachenalia mathewsii
 Graham has a clear writing style and his text is very accessible: this is a book for gardeners, not botanists (although I'm sure many will consult it for its breadth of information and abundant illustrations), so technical terms are kept to a minimum. Cultural conditions are usually well described, but a series of summary symbols is also provided for most entries. The usually excellent pictures were almost all taken by Graham, but as with some other books in this series, the reproduction is unfortunately not always as good as it might be. However, since the book covers plants from the whole of southern Africa, a far wider range of species is illustrated than is usually the case on works focusing on the flora of the Western Cape, and horticulturally interesting variants are often shown. Within the genera it makes no attempt to be comprehensive, covering only a selection sufficient to show the diversity of each genus - 10 from 100 Western Cape Romulea, for example, and with great restraint, 19 of 120 Lachenalia species. For this, Graham's favourite genus, his completed full revision is just around the corner. In the meantime, I'm sure Grow Bulbs will both inspire and assist many in their attempts to grow South African bulbs.

Spiloxene capensis - 'needs a constantly moist environment and pots are best placed
 in deep saucers during the growing period.'


  1. That Spiloxene is rather lovely - do you grow this yourself?

  2. No, that was near Cape Town in September. I wish I did grow it!

  3. Oh how I love Sparaxis. We don't grow it enough here.


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