Gethyllis is a bulbous genus in the Amaryllidaceae family that is found mostly in the winter rainfall region of southern Africa. It has many unusual characteristics, including twisted or hairy leaves, unusual sweet-smelling fruit that look like tiny sausages or bananas, and a growth pattern that features flowers in the middle of the "dormant" season. Some PBS members would nominate it as the world's most unusual genus of bulbs.
Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds wrote a great introduction to the genus for the Pacific Bulb Society email list:
Gethyllis are found from Southern Namibia through to the Eastern Cape, with the largest number of species in the Nieuwoudtville Vanrhynsdorp area.There are about 32 species, and they are all probably winter growers. Unfortunately there is no revision of the genus - some work was done on them in 1986 by the Muller-Doblies, but this was published in German and is not easily accessible (or understandable!).
Life cycle. The plants have true bulbs with thick fleshy roots. These roots can be extremely long, particularly in the sand-growing species, and they can act as contractile organs, pulling the bulbs down deep into the soil. In autumn, the leaves emerge, and in most cases they are spirally twisted. There are exceptions - some species have straight leaves, and some have prostrate leaves. Many are ciliate (hairy) and in most cases the leaves are extremely attractive. Some species have a cataphyll or sheath at the base of the leaves, and these may be marked with speckles, they may have a rolled collar at the top, or they may have bristles along the top edge. The cataphyll looks like a slender neck, with a bunch of leaves projecting from the top like an "afro" hair style!
During the winter the bulbs grow, and in late spring or early summer, when the rainfall drops, the leaves begin to die back. For the next few months, there is nothing to be seen of the bulbs at all, and one has no idea that the plants are even there.
Suddenly in mid-summer, in the midst of the hot dry season, each mature bulb will send up a flower. The flowers are extremely fragile looking and one wonders how they manage to break through the hard baked soil. They are in shades of white to pink and are usually sweetly scented. The ovary is inferior and lies below the ground in the neck of the bulb where it is protected from the heat. In young bulbs, the flowers often have stamens but no style, presumably as a protective mechanism to prevent the immature plant from being fertilized. There are no leaves during the flowering period, so all the nutrients and moisture must come from the stored resources in the bulb. The flowers last from 2 to 5 days, depending on the temperature. As each plant only produces one flower, it is essential that the whole population flowers at more or less the same time to ensure cross pollination. It is thought that there must be some external stimulus which triggers the flowering mechanism - perhaps changes in atmospheric pressure?
After cross-pollination, the ovary begins to swell, and about 3 to 4 months later, in mid-autumn, the fruits are pushed out of the ground like sausages. The fruits vary considerably in size (from thin worm like bodies to large fat sausages) and in colour (from creamy-white to yellow to rich burgundy). Each fruit consists of small round perishable seeds embedded in a fruity flesh and encased in a translucent "skin". As the fruits are pushed up,they fall over and lie on the ground. They have a strange fruity scent, and are thought to be scattered by animals (perhaps tortoises and rodents) eating the flesh and scattering the seeds. Once the seeds are released from the skin and flesh, they immediately begin to germinate, whether the weather is hot and dry, or wet and cool. If no rain falls, the germinated seeds simply shrivel up and die, but if the ground is wet, the seed pushes a root into the soil, forms a small bulb, and then pushes up a leaf. Man has discovered a good use for the fruits - if they are soaked in alcohol, the fruity flavour is extracted into the alcohol making a delicious tasting beverage! The common name for Gethyllis is "koekamakranka" and the brandy is known as "koekakmakranka brandewyn".
Almost immediately after seed production, the leaves emerge, and the whole cycle starts again.
Identification. In the latest Indigenous Bulb Society of South Africa Bulletin (July 1999), Alan Horstmann wrote an article on the identification of Gethyllis based on leaves and cataphylls. Many of us have quite extensive collections of Gethyllis, and none of us know what they are due to the lack of literature on these plants. Alan divided the plants into several groups depending on leaf shape and hairiness, and on the absence or presence of a cataphyll. One has to remember that when the plants have leaves, no flowers are evident. And when the flowers appear, the leaves are long gone! So a traditional key using leaves, flowers and perhaps fruits is useless to a grower, as at no stage of the life cycle do even 2 of these characteristics occur simultaneously!
The first group consists of those plants with cataphylls visible above the ground - Gethyllis cavidens, verticillata, namaquensis, gregoriana, grandiflora, britteniana, ciliaris, latifolia and undulata. Some have spotty cataphyls, and some are bristly, and all have long leaves, many of which are spirally arranged.
The next group consists of those species with prostrate leaves arranged in a rosette - Gethyllis barkerae, lata, pectinata, roggeveldensis, and uteana.
The third group has no visible cataphyll and no prostrate leaves, but they have hairy leaves: Gethyllis setosa, longistyla, verrucosa, villosa, lanuginosa, fimbriatula, multifolia, unilateralis, and oligophylla.
And the final group are those with non-hairy leaves: Gethylls afra, campanulata, hallii, oliverorum, pusilla, spiralis, transkarooica, and kaapensis.
Culture. The best way to grow Gethyllis is in a large deep pot in a well-drained sandy potting mix. They need to be kept dry in summer and damp in winter, and they are simple to grow from seed (which must be planted immediately after it ripens).
The book Bulbous Plants of Southern Africa, by Du Plessis and Duncan, adds these recommendations:
A related genus is Apodolirion L. which differs only in the attachment of the anthers. Some feel that it should not be a separate genus, but should be included in Gethyllis.
Gethyllis afra grows on flats in fynbos in the Western Cape, blooming December to January. Plants grow 10-14 cm high. Leaves are linear, spreading, and spiraled with soft spreading hairs. Flowers are cup shaped, white with pink on the outside. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis barkerae D.Müll.-Doblies grows on lowland and upland sandy flats in dry fynbos in the northwest Cape and Namaqualand. This species has prostrate elliptical hairy leaves. The flowers and fruit resemble Gethyllis villosa. Flowering occurs in December. First two photos by Alan Horstmann and Gordon Summerfield. Other photos by Paul Cumbleton.
Gethyllis britteniana Baker grows on sandveld or rocky slopes in the northwest Cape and Namaqualand. It has strap-shaped spiraled gray green leaves with white sheaths with reddish-brown spots. Flowers are cup shaped ivory to pink. First three photos by Bob Rutemoeller and Mary Sue Ittner of the leaves taken in Namaqualand September 2006. Fourth photo by Gordon Summerfield. The last photo from Mary Sue Ittner shows the leaves of the plant growing in a pot in the bulb room at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.
Gethyllis campanulata L.Bolus grows on upland dolerite flats and gravelly lower slopes in in the Bokkeveld and Roggeveld escarpments. It has slightly succulent green leaves which are widely spreading and spirally arranged. The white to cream flowers appear in summer between November and January. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis ciliaris (Thunb.) Thunb. is found on mountain slopes and coastal flats in deep sand in Namaqualand and the western Cape. It has strap shaped spiraled leaves with hairs on the margins. The sheath is mostly underground, but sometimes as long as the leaves and spotted with maroon when exposed. Ivory to deep pink flowers appear from December to February. Photos taken by Alan Horstmann.
Gethyllis grandiflora L.Bolus grows in, but is not restricted to Namaqualand. The flowers are cream, with a light orange center. The first photo by Nhu Nguyen shows a second year seedling with the leaves already spiraling. First year seedlings do not show this characteristic spiral. The second photo was taken by Alan Horstmann. Third photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis hallii D.Müll.-Doblies has been described from a single locality near Vredendal. It resembles Gethyllis campanulata except that the slightly succulent linear leaves that are densely covered by papillae are prostrate in a rosette, and are not spirally twisted. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis heinzeana D.Müll.-Doblies is not included in the list of 40 species on the SANBI checklist of Gethyllis Plants of southern Africa. This is a plant for which we don't have any information. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis lanuginosa Marloth grows on sandy or stony soils on flats or lower slopes between Bitterfontein and Biesiesfontein in the northwest and southwest Cape. It has 7 to 10 erect or spreading-erect grey green hairy leaves with each leaf coiled into a tight spiral. The white with a pink blush flowers appear in November. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis linearis L.Bolus is found on upland and lowland semiarid flats in sand or gravel in the northwest Cape. It is one of the more common species. The grey green smooth leaves are somewhat succulent and prostrate, spirally arranged and spirally twisted. The white, tinged pink flowers appear from October to November. First photo by Gordon Summerfield, second photo by Paul Cumbleton. Other photos by Arnold Trachtenberg.
Gethyllis longistyla Bolus is found in an area which receives both winter and summer rainfall in the Nama Karoo Biome. Leaves are dull green, somewhat succulent with leaf margins which are fringed by a double row of microscopic deeply incised scales. Photo of leaves of this species taken at the Indigenous Bulb Association of South Africa’s 2nd symposium by Bob Rutemoeller.
Gethyllis namaquensis (Schönland) Oberm. grows in the desert on the border between South Africa and Namibia. It has gray green smooth erect leaves that are spirally arranged. It can be distinguished from other species by the brown disc-shaped swelling of the upper part of the cataphyll. Photos by Rachel Saunders.
Gethyllis oligophylla D.Müll.-Doblies is not included in the list of 40 species on the SANBI checklist of Gethyllis Plants of southern Africa. Information from Alan Horstmann in the 1999 IBSA journal describes it as an extremely rare species found only in the Biedouw Valley. Plants have 2 to 4 leaves. The basal half is spirally twisted and hairy and the apical half is even more twisted and smooth. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis roggeveldensis D.Müll.-Doblies grows on stony clay soils on south facing slopes between Calvinia and Tankwa Karoo National Park in the Roggeveld. It has narrow prostrate leaves arranged in a rosette with upturned apices and white to delicate pink flowers. It flowers in November. First two photos by Gordon Summerfield. Flower and seed pod photos by Paul Cumbleton.
Gethyllis setosa Marloth is extremely rare and has only been found at Matjiesfontein. It has erect uniformly green hairy leaves that are spirally arranged with the surfaces covered with scale-like trichomes (outgrowth from the surface of the leaves). Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethylis transkarooica D.Müll.-Doblies is widely distributed across South Africa, in both winter and summer rainfall areas. It grows on slopes or flats in sand or clay, and the rose pink flowers appear from November to December. It has 5 to 6 linear dark green smooth leaves held erect, spirally arranged and twisted. Photo by Paul Cumbleton, who reports that he grows it as a winter-grower, dry in summer.
Gethyllis spp. The first three Gethyllis plants in leaf were on display at the IBSA Symposium in South Africa August 2003. They were not identified by species. Photos by Bob Rutemoeller. The last photo also by Bob Rutemoeller is also of the leaves of an unidentified Gethyllis, this one grown by Alan Horstmann in South Africa.
Gethyllis undulata Herb. is considered by the South African Biodiversity Institute to be a synonym for Gethyllis ciliaris subsp. ciliaris. It is distributed from Malmesbury to Clanwilliam and has a purple-brown spotted cataphyll and green erect hairy leaves that are spirally arranged. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis uteana D.Müll.-Doblies according to Alan Horstmann in the IBSA journal is only known from a location near Matjiesfontein. It has 5 to 15 glossy green hairless prostrate leaves arranged in a rosette. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis verrucosa Marloth is distributed on lower slopes and flats in heavy soils from the western Karoo to Bredasdorp. It has strap shaped leaves that are loosely spiraled and hairy. It flowers from October to December and has white flowers. First two photos from Andrew Harvie. The third and fourth photos are probably this species, by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis verticillata R.Br. ex Herb. is found in the winter rainfall area (Namaqualand to Darling) on rock outcrops on slopes and well drained flats. It flowers from November to February and has white flowers. Leaves are linear to strap-shaped, coiled at the tip with a pair of basal sheaths that are white and blotched and elaborately fringed at the apex. First photo by Bob Rutemoeller of the leaves showing the basal sheaths of one of Gordon Summerfield's plants. Second photo by Gordon Summerfield. Other photos by Paul Cumbleton.
Gethyllis villosa (Thunb.) Thunb. is found in sand or clay on flats or south-facing slopes from Namaqualand to Mossel Bay and the western Karoo. It grows 3 to 15 cm. high and has white or pink flowers and strap-shaped loosely spiraled leaves with star-like white hairs. It flowers October to December (end of growing season) in the wild. Photos 1-3 by Julian Slade of his plants blooming in Australia December 2003. The first image of the closed bud depicts what you will actually find in the morning after a cool change or barometric change in summer. There is no sign of anything the day before, even if you look for it! The second shows the opened flower and the third, a top view, shows the style is bent to the side which is a characteristic of some of the species. The fourth picture was taken by Cameron McMaster near Swellendam in the Overberg. The fifth photo was taken by Nhu Nguyen of a mature plant extending its leaves. Sixth photo by Gordon Summerfield. The last photo shows the seed pods, by Rachel Saunders.