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Bowiea volubilis is an odd-looking long lived bulbous plant that is easy to grow. It produces frothy strands of foliage and myriads of yellowish-green delicate flowers in late winter/late spring.
Origin and Habitat: Bowiea volubilis (subsp. volubilis) is widespread in South Africa (Estern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga), and elsewhere in Easter Africa (Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya).
Altitude range: This species grows at low and medium altitudes (300-2320 metres above sea level).
Habitat and Ecology: Albany Thicket, Grassland, Savanna, evergreen bushland and woodland on rocky soils, usually along mountain ranges and in slopes with thickly vegetated river valleys, often under Brachystegia clumps and in boulder screes, sometimes found scrambling at the margins of karroid, succulent bush in the Eastern Cape. Occurs in bushy kloofs at the coast and inland in KwaZulu-Natal. In Gauteng, Mpumalanga and North West Province it is often found in open woodland or on steep rocky hills usually in well-shaded situations. The stems surround shrubby support; the bulbs grow in shade of bushes, partially covered with leaf litter. Tolerates wet and dry conditions, growing predominantly in summer rainfall areas with an annual rainfall of 200-800 mm. Generation length is estimated to be 10 years. This subspecies is under severe pressure from medicinal plant harvesting over the majority of its range in South Africa.
- Bowiea volubilis Harv. ex Hook.f.
Bowiea volubilis Harv. ex Hook.f.
Bot. Mag. 93: t. 5619. 1867 [1 Jan 1867]
- Bowiea volubilis Harv. ex Hook.f.
- Ophiobostryx volubilis (Harv.) Skeels
- Schizobasis volubilis (Harv. ex Hook.f.) van Jaarsv.
- Schizobasopsis volubilis (Harv. ex Hook.f.) J.F.Macbr.
- Bowiea kilimandscharica Mildbr.
- Schizobasopsis kilimandscharica (Mildbr.) Barschus
Bowiea volubilis subs. gariepensis (van Jaarsv.) Bruyns
Caryologia 40(4): 291 (1987 publ. 1988)
ENGLISH: Zulu Potato, Sea Onion, Climbing Onion, Climbing Green Lily
AFRIKAANS (Afrikaans): Knolklimop
PERSIAN (فارسی): بوویا
XHOSA (isiXhosa): Umagaqana, Umagaquana, Umgaqana
ZULU (isiZulu): Ugibisisila, Ugibisila, Iguleni, Gifisila, Gibisila
Description: Bowiea volubilis (climbing-onion, sea onion) is an interesting long living deciduous, perennial bulb. It is generally considered a succulent in the broad sense. The plants have many overlapping scales, which form tight, pale green, spherical bulbs that grows to 20 cm above the soil and to 25 cm in diameter (could take 70 years). The bulbs send up a twining fresh-green branched stem with few linear deciduous leaves. Dormant in winter, when the outer scales and many of the scale tips dry to a paper-like state, the plants burst to growth in late spring or summer, producing one or more very fast-growing stems that needs to be supported by a trellis or stake. The stems are covered with many leafless side-branches that may fall off. The small greenish-white flowers appear in spring. Two subspecies are recognized, the nominate form and Bowiea volubilis subsp. gariepensis (van Jaarsv.) Bruyns.
Bulb: Onion-like, depressed-globose, 1.5-16(-30) cm in diameter and usually grows half buried in the soil, but may be subterranean or fully exposed, exposed parts pale green. Tunics thickly fleshy withering to paper-thin brownish skins, like an onion.
Roots: Fleshy, white, to 5 mm in diameter.
Stems (inflorescences): Each year in late winter, the bulb develops a new branched scrambling, twining or climbing, green flowering stem (raceme) that somewhat make it looks like an elongated, leafless, asparagus but is much more tender, the stem (wine) can reach 2.5-6(-10) metres, it grows with great vigour and determination, and hangs up any nearby support it finds on its way. As it matures, dense lacy branches form and give a full appearance. Branches subulate to 7 cm long, 2-7 cm in diameter. When fall arrives, the growth dies back going into a period of dormancy. Bracts narrowly-lanceolate, 3-5 mm long, with a short spur.
Leaves: There are no leaves except for 1-2 true leaves that emerge from the middle of the bulb and perishing early, they are small, linear-lanceolate, canaliculate, very short lived and are soon replaced by the flowering stems of true scales leaves that drop rapidly.
Flowers: Single, starry, 6-lobed, diurnal, greenish or white 10-16 mm wide, scattered on the long twining raceme. Pedicels arched. 2-10 cm long. Tepals free to the base, 5-9(-12) x 3.5 mm, white or green to yellowish-green, patent or reflexed, oblong to lanceolate, margins revolute toward the base, apex subacute. Styles 6, terete, stigma three lobed. Filaments suberects. Blooms are produced only in moderate to full sun where the plant produces dozens of flowers on each shoot. The flowers have an unpleasant smell.
Blooming season: Spring and sometime will bloom twice in a year.
Fruits (capsules): 3-locular, ellipsoid, apex pointed, 8-25(-30) mm long with accuminate valves, dehishing longitudinally.
Seeds: Black, angular-oblong, shiny, 5-10 mm long.
Subspecies, varieties, forms and cultivars of plants belonging to the Bowiea volubilis group
- Bowiea volubilis Harv. ex Hook.f.: (subsp. volubilis) bulb to 16 cm in diameter, flowers 10-16 mm across. Distribution: From Cape Province to Kenya.
- Bowiea volubilis subs. gariepensis (van Jaarsv.) Bruyns: Bulb to 14 cm in diameter. Flowers 14-23 mm in diameter. Distribution: Namibia, Cape Province.
Bibliography: Major references and further lectures:
1) Wikipedia contributors. "Bowiea." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 Jun. 2015.
2) Dressler, S.; Schmidt, M. & Zizka, G. "Bowiea volubilis". African plants – a Photo Guide. Frankfurt/Main: Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg. 2014
3) Graf, Alfred Byrd "Tropica: color cyclopedia of exotic plants and trees for warm-region horticulture–in cool climate the summer garden or sheltered indoors"; 3rd ed. East Rutherford, N.J.: Roehrs Co 1986
4) Lord, Tony "Flora: The Gardener's Bible : More than 20,000 garden plants from around the world." London: Cassell. 2003
5) Stedje, B. "Hyacinthaceae. Flora of Tropical East Africa": 1-32. 1996
6) Urs Eggli "Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons" Springer Science & Business Media, 06 December 2012
7) Sharon Asakawa, John Bagnasco "Planting Designs for Cactus & Succulents: Indoor and Outdoor Projects for Unique, Easy-Care Plants--in All Climates" Cool Springs Press, 15 gen 2014
8) "Fl. Pl. South Africa" 21: t.815 1941
9) "Mem. Bot. Surv. South Africa": 540 1966
10) "List South. African Succ. Pl.": 83 1997
11) "Wild Flrs north. South Africa" : 54 1997
12) "Handbook 184", Brooklyn Bot. Gard.: 40, 2006
13) J.-P. LEBRUN & A. L. STORK "Enumération des plantes à fleurs d'Afrique tropicale et Tropical African Flowering Plants: Ecology and Distribution", vol. 1-7. Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève.(1991-2012).
14) G. GERMISHUIZEN & N.L. MEYER, eds, "Plants of Southern Africa: an annotated checklist" Pretoria. 2003
15) Bowiea volubilis African Plants Database (version 3.4.0). Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève and South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, "Retrieved [set month and year]", from <http://www.ville-ge.ch/musinfo/bd/cjb/africa/>
16) Bircher, C., Prentice, C., Crouch, N. and Symmonds, R. "Conservation concerns for Bowiea volubilis, an unusually succulent member of the Hyacinthaceae." Herbertia 53:81-89. 1998
17) Cocks, M. and Dold, A.P. "The Medicinal Plant Trade in the Eastern Cape Province." Unpublished report on behalf of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, South Africa, Pretoria. 2000
18) Pfab, M.F. and Victor, J.E. "Threatened plants of Gauteng, South Africa." South African Journal of Botany 68:370-375. 2002
19) Scott-Shaw, C.R. "Rare and threatened plants of KwaZulu-Natal and neighbouring regions." KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service, Pietermaritzburg. 1999
20) Van Jaarsveld, E. "Bowiea gariepensis and Bowiea volubilis." British Cactus and Succulent Journal 10(4):96-98. 1992.
21) Victor, J.E. and Dold, A.P. "Threatened plants of the Albany Centre of Floristic Endemism, South Africa." South African Journal of Science 99:437-446. 2003
Over time, the bulbs eventually split to produce two bulbs and even more as the plant becomes very old. Photo by: Cactus Art
- In a group of plants known for many interesting oddities, Bowiea volubilis is one of the great curiosities of the succulent world. It produces large onion-like bulbs that may measure from a few cm upward to as much as 25 cm across. Photo by: Zoltán Oláh
New growth in spring. Photo by: Cactus Art
The bulb looks like a globe of green jade resting on the ground, sometimes camouflaged by a paper-thin, brownish "onion skins". Photo by: Valentino Vallicelli
Bowiea bulbs are comprised of tightly clustered modified leaves, which serve as reserves of nutrients and moisture. Photo by: Valentino Vallicelli
Dry stem (wine) in winter. Photo by: Cactus Art
Bowiea volubilis Photo by: Cactus Art
Bowiea volubilis Photo by: Cactus Art
Cultivation and Propagation: The climbing onion has definite growth and dormant stages. During the active stage in late winter, bowiea will produce long, entangled vines, which are actually the flower stems of the plant. As it matures, dense branches form and give the plant a full facade. Then, if the plant receives enough sunlight, myriad star-shaped, greenish-white flowers will scatter themselves along the stems. Unfortunately, their scent is as odd as the plant itself. When fall arrives, the growth dies back and the bulb goes into a resting period. This plant truly thrives on neglect. An old favourite that’s easy to grow and puts on a fanciful display but it took years to acclimate; this is not a plant for the impatient gardener. It likes well drained, organic soil (e.g. use a mixture for cactus + normal potting soil) and regular watering during the active growing season. Let the soil become rather dry before watering again
Stop gradually watering when the stalk dries out after blooming, in summer or else the bulbs may rot. Start watering when the stalk starts growing again in late winter. ) It can be planted undergrounds, with a thin soil layer on it, or just leave it “on” the ground, it will root anyway, and the chances of getting rot are smaller this way rather than planted undergrounds (although it grows slower). Protect from heat in summer. Light shade to full sun, keep bulb shaded.
Pests and Diseases: Mealy bugs seem to be a problem, especially in older specimens that have formed a clump of bulbs. They hide in the residue of the old, dry, dead bulb scales.
Propagation: Seeds, detach offsets when repotting , but can also be reproduced by dividing the bulbs. In fact any small (or large) fragment of a nice green bulb scale will sprout little baby bulbs if allowed to callus on the edges when simply placed on a bright windowsill. Just leave them until they have pulled all the nourishment they can from the "mother" bulb scale which will then dry up, then remove them and pot up.
Warning: Despite its common name of climbing onion, all parts of a Bowiea are toxic and contain cardiac glycosides. They are only dangerous if eaten in large quantities but they may produce a minor skin irritation in people who have a sensitivity to the compounds, but H. Jacobsen claims it can be eaten.
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