Dear Readers, just when I think I’ve run out of spring flowers to write about, another new one pops up. I was so glad to spot this little beauty in a garden in Muswell Hill, North London, on my way back from brunch this morning. River lily (Hesperantha coccinea) is native to South Africa and Zimbabwe, but its delicate flowers have made it popular with florists in many countries. I had no idea that it flowered so early, but we have had a very mild winter here in the UK so far, and I note that it was flowering in December according to this post from the gardeners at Sissinghurst Castle. This morning was the first time that the pond has been frozen during this season, and everything was dusted with frost, so let’s hope that most early/late flowering plants hereabouts are at least a little hardy.
I always knew this plant as Schizostylis, which was certainly a mouthful. It was believed that because the plant grew from a rhizome, not a corm, and because it had red flowers (unlike the rest of the plants in the Hesperantha genus, who were pink or white), it deserved a genus all of its own, the tongue-twisting Schizostylis. However, DNA proved that the plant was extremely closely related to the others in the Hesperantha genus, and that the superficial differences were a result of the plant adapting to its habitat (rhizomes are more efficient in waterlogged soils) and its pollinator’s preference for red flowers. It just goes to show that we should never judge a book by its cover.
The elephant in the room with this flower is that some people here in the UK probably know this plant as ‘kaffir lily’ (the name is also sometimes applied to Clivia, a bright orange pot plant). However, it has been widely recognised that ‘kaffir’ is a deeply offensive term. It probably originated with the Arabic word for ‘non-believer’, but acquired a heavily racial tone during the apartheid era (and probably before), and has been actionable as hate speech since at least 1976. So, we shall draw a line under the name here, and refer to it a river lily going forward. Many people in the UK would have had no idea that the word was offensive, but when we know better, we do better.
Moving on! River lily reminds me of nothing so much as freesia, and so it comes as no surprise that it is related: It is part of the iris family (Iridaceae) but specifically the crocus subfamily, which includes freesias and gladioli. The Latin genus name ‘Hesperantha‘ means ‘evening flower’, and the species name coccinea means red (think ‘cochineal’). Clearly our plant isn’t red, but the wild plant is, and very pretty it is too. I think that our plant is the cultivar ‘Jennifer’ (or possibly ‘Pink Princess’), but the website ‘PlantZAfrica‘ mentions that white and pink varieties of the flower occur in the wild too.
In its native range, river lily grows in wet areas, such as riverbanks, marshes, and anywhere where its roots can be kept constantly damp. I can imagine how lovely it looks growing in profusion, and there is the added bonus that its chief pollinator is the Table Mountain beauty butterfly(Aeropetes tulbaghia), a most spectacular insect with a strong preference for the colour red. The butterfly is also the sole pollinator of the red disa orchid (Disa uniflora), which grows alongside streams in the Fynbos in South Africa. How intricate are the relationships between plants and animals in an ecosystem, and how easily disrupted. I am in love with the Fynbos, even though i have never visited, and I get a great deal of vicarious pleasure from the Fynbos Guy website, which is full of information and some wonderful photographs, such as the two below.
There is some evidence that other members of the Hesperantha genus can be useful for soil stabilization in freshwater habitats, but I can find nothing specific about ‘our’ plant. However, I imagine that that tangle of roots and rhizomes would help to hold things together, at least temporarily.
And now for something of a treat. My Fynbos obsession has led me to seek out artists from the area, and the Table Mountain Fund is featuring four botanical artists with very different approaches to the flora of the area. I was much taken by StuART’s photographs, but all the artists are worth a look. Inspiration is everywhere, but I think these artists must feel spoilt for choice! Have a look and see what you think here. And just to whet your appetite, here are a few examples from the website.
Nic Bladen makes sculpture and jewellery.
You can see StuART’s photography here
And finally, printmaker and painter Jane Eppel has created a Fynbos alphabet based on the flora of the area.
I hope you enjoy looking at this varied and interesting work as much as I did.
Photo One by By JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7861171
Photo Two from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/
Photo Three from https://thefynbosguy.com/summer-time-table-mountain-beauty/
Photo Four from http://www.nicbladen.com/current-work
Photo Five from http://www.thevoorkamergallery.com/new-page-5
Photo Six from https://www.janeeppel.com/past-printmaking