Wednesday, 15 December 2010

A mysterious scent in the greenhouse

Massonia echinata
For the past few days I've been struck by a sweet fragrance as I enter the greenhouse, but could not immediately identify it. There are a few flowers here and there, but most are obviously unscented - Impatiens, Fuchsia paniculata, a couple of nerines, and more or less solitary flowers on a few other odds and ends, none of which was an obvious candidate. Eventually I realised the scent was coming from a specimen of the South African bulb Massonia echinata, whose pincushion-like tuft of small white flowers emerges from between two prostrate leaves: not having grown this species before I was unaware that it possessed this attribute. The fragrance, close-up, is rather cloyingly sweet, deep and rich with a hint of spice, but not totally nice (think tart's boudoir), but it is impressive that it can scent a whole greenhouse and very welcome at a time when floral scent is at a premium. 

Francis Masson
The genus Massonia (Hyacinthaceae)commemorates Francis Masson (1741-1805), Kew's first plant collector, whose endeavours in South Africa resulted in the discovery and introduction to cultivation of many interesting plants. It is a genus of about a dozen species, all of which share the basic morphology of two broad leaves held prostrate to the ground, with a small cluster of flowers appearing at their centre. Some have interestingly warty or pustulate leaves - the epithet echinata ('armed with numerous rigid hairs or straight prickles,' from echinus, hedgehog or sea urchin) suggests that this species should do too, but the feature varies within species and this plant is a non-echinate clone. Not all members of the genus are attractively scented - some are distinctly musky in scent, and these are at least sometimes pollinated by rodents, which visit for the sake of the copious nectar produced by the flowers. Moths are the classic pollinators for scented, white-flowered plants, so it is possible that these do the deed in the wild for M. echinata.

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