Watsonia merriania bulbifera. Photo from Martin Pallett's collection of Watsonias.

My fondness for Watsonias – the spectacular Bugle Lily: Guest Blog

Our guest blogger Martin Pallett of Bleujyowa writes of his fondness for Watsonias – or Bugle Lilies – a genus of spectacular flowering species from southern Africa

I enjoy many different kinds of exotics, shrubs, perennials and annuals and we have a good mixture of all of these in our Carlyon Bay garden. People that know me sometimes joke that I do go on rather a lot about my fondness for Watsonias. Do you know of them? If not, I think it is time you did.

They are cormous perennials which are members of the Iris family and originate from various parts of Southern Africa. What is particularly pleasing is that a number of them grow so well with us here in mid-Cornwall.

Watsonias in shades of pink, orange and white

I am a huge fan of them. We have quite a number of fairly well established plants outside in the garden and I am continually trying to grow more species from seed. Their showy spikes of horizontal, tubular flowers are stunning and they require a sunny spot and a fairly free draining soil. They are tender and range in height from 30cms to a meter or more. Most species come in varied shades of pink, orange and white. With us they mostly flower from April through to July although we have a red species (Beatrice) which flowers through much of the winter too.

Our front garden at Bleujyowa is fairly open facing south – west and although we have a clay soil we added tons of grit to it when we arrived here and we mulch with a thick layer of green compost in late winter each year.

Our Watsonia season starts in earnest around April or May usually with W. borbonica subspecies Ardernei which is our tallest and a beautiful clump in our front garden has white flower spikes up to about nearly 2 meters tall which last a number of weeks.

Flower spikes of Watsonia borbonica subsp Ardernei with flowers just emerging. Photo from Martin Pallett's collection of Watsonias.
Watsonia borbonica subsp Ardernei Photo by Martin Pallett

Another favourite W. Knysnana is smaller with lovely pink flowered spikes comes a little later. This performs well each year and has been easy to divide and spread around the garden.

Flower spikes of Watsonia knysnana with flowers just emerging. Photo from Martin Pallett's collection of Watsonias.
Watsonia knysnana Photo by Martin Pallett

W. Tresco Hybrid (orange) and similar looking W. ’Dart Sea Trout’ which is a more intense red/orange colour also flowers nearby. W. Wilmaniae (light pink) also flower during early summer. A taller orange flowered species of Watsonia I also find particularly graceful. I have some more peach colour forms too. The naming of Watsonia does sometimes seem a little tricky with similar forms going by a variety of names.

A flower spike of Watsonia 'Tresco Hybrid' with crimson flowers just emerging. Photo from Martin Pallett's collection of Watsonias
Watsonia ‘Tresco Hybrid’ Photo by Martin Pallett.

This year a tall growing orange flowering W. meriania with very large orange flowers looked impressive on a raised bed at the side of the front garden although its flowers did not last ever so long. I have divided it but am a little wary that it may be a thug with potential to spread around.

Complement shrubs and grasses in mixed borders

They grow well in mixed borders and complement well shrubs and grasses as well as other perennials. There have been a few more severe winters when they do appear to have taken a knock and some have flowered less.

W. aletroides is quite different in looks and is regarded as one of the most unusual species of the genus. It is relatively short with long tubular red flowers. I haven’t yet succeeded in growing it in the open ground and so I keep it in a pot protected over the winter. W. laccata grows to no more than a couple of feet high and its dainty orange flowers look lovely in early summer in a pot which I enjoy near our back door.

I collect seed from my plants too. You know when the seed is ready because the seed capsules are very brown and often starting to open. I grow them indoors in small trays in any reasonable compost, keeping them fairly moist. They do not seem to need additional bottom heat to germinate. It can take two to three months before seedlings start to emerge which I gradually pot on. They don’t usually flower for two or three years.

They do not seem to appear very regularly for sale in most garden centres and nurseries and I don’t really understand why when they offer so much to gardeners. I was particularly touched when a Cornish Garden Centre sent customers directly to me because they were searching for Watsonias for their local garden.

I am fortunate to have seen them growing in the wild and so growing them in our own garden means a lot to me. I am learning about them all the time experimenting to find out which I can successfully propagate and grow outside.

So, which new Watsonias am I particularly looking forward to in 2021? I have been growing W. fourcadei which has lovely red flowers and I look forward to seeing if some of them will flower outside in the garden. A friend in Portugal sent me some seeds and a corm of W. marginata another pink flowered species and these are also growing well. I think Watsonias will continue to fascinate me for many years to come.

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