Massonia is a genus in the family Hyacinthaceae or Asparagaceae according to APG III. It was named for Francis Masson, a Scottish student gardener at Kew who was sent to the Cape by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772 to collect seeds. It can be found in dry areas in southern Africa. Species have two prostrate or spreading leaves and a head-like inflorescence at ground level with large and leafy bracts and tubular flowers with the filaments shortly joined together at the base. Most species are winter growers, summer dormant, and bloom early, often in late fall to early winter. Seeds are formed in a three angled (papery) capsule which as it dries elongates and easily lifts out or is detached to disperse the seeds. Summer dormant plants will come out of dormancy on their own in the fall even when water is not given. Massonia species have perennial roots, but they are not as picky about losing them as members of the Amaryllidaceae. Repotting can be done any time, but probably best right before they come into growth. A dry dormancy is required.
Members of this genus are easily grown from seeds. Sow the seeds right before the growing season and cover with a thin layer of medium. Seeds will germinate in 2-3 weeks. First year seedlings make a single cylindrical leaf, and each progressive years, the leaf gets bigger until two leaves per bulb appear. Community pots of seedlings increase in size each year and the leaves can soon become crowded. Eventually they need to be transferred to one bulb per container, unless the container is large and can accommodate the spread of the leaves without overlapping too much.
This genus is considered a taxonomic mess and much work is required to delimit the species boundary of certain species. There is controversy over what name to use for plants in cultivation. Some new species have been described and others returned to previous names based on the examination of only a few plants collected from very few places in the wild or grown from seed in greenhouse conditions in Europe. Local botanists feel that because of the wide variations in the plants they have seen in the wild that a more thorough study is needed and they are not changing the names until that has been done. As possible we will try to reflect the divergent opinions in our text below and include names people are using for the plants they are growing.
Massonia bifolia (Jacq.) J.C.Manning & Goldblatt (syn. Whiteheadia bifolia) was reclassified as Massonia based on convincing evidence by Manning, Goldblatt & Fay (2004). It grows in arid winter-rainfall areas of south western Namibia and the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Plants are tucked in under rocks to provide shade and bulb protection. Its cluster of green flowers with a topknot of bracts looks similar to Eucomis. Rodents are said to sip its nectar, and there are lots of rodent droppings to the left of the flower stalk in photo #2 below. Diane Whitehead wrote: "It doesn't arouse enthusiasm in flower writers, and I expected to like it only out of family loyalty, but when I saw it growing, I liked it for its robust self." Photos 1-2 were taken by Diane Whitehead in Namaqualand in early September 2006. Photos 3 were taken by Mary Sue Ittner and photo 4 by Bob Rutemoeller at the same time and place. Photos 5-6 were taken by Hans Joschko.
Massonia citrina M.Pinter et al. was described in June 2013. It is known only from a small area of the Rooihoogte Pass, Western Cape. The general morphology puts it into the M. depressa group, but the lemon-yellow flowers set it apart from the other species. The photo below was taken by Gottfried Milkuhn.
Massonia depressa Houtt. is native to the dry areas of the Cape Province and Namaqualand to the Orange Free State. This species is pollinated by rodents including gerbils. The flowers are low to the ground, dull colored, with a yeasty odor and sucrose-dominant jelly-like nectar that is easy for the rodents to lap. Anthers on this species are more than 2 mm long, longer than on other species in the Cape. A recent paper by Wolfgang Wetschnig et al. STAPFIA 97 (2012): 210–221 proposes relocating some forms of this species to Massonia pustulata but botanists in South Africa who have observed this species in the wild note there is great variation in this species and the paper does not present enough specimens to make this conclusion. We are leaving the names of those plants the names that the photographers used until this is settled. Photos 1-3 taken by Mary Sue Ittner show this species blooming for the first time from seed in a pot that probably should be bigger. Photo 2 is a close-up of the flowers and the last shows the nectar. Photo 3 was taken by Cameron McMaster.
The photo below is of a form from Uniondale with incredible red flowers. Photo by Gottfried Milkuhn.
Massonia echinata L.f. is widespread in the Cape and is found in dry areas. The leaves are smooth, hairy or pustulate-hairy, sometimes spotted. The flowers are cream to white, with a sigmoid curve at the base of the tepals, and fading pink with scent of honey. The filaments of this species are usually shorter however (<12mm). Currently, many authors treat this species as having broad morphological flexibility from a broad range, and thus many names such as M. hirsuta and M. setulosa are placed under this name.
Photos 1-3 by Mary Sue Ittner show a plant grown from seed labeled this species in different stages: bud, flower, seed. In photo 1, it is growing in the same pot with M. pustulata. That plant emerges later, has a purplish tinge and is very pustulate, with smaller leaves and more attractive flowers. Every year the leaves of this plant get bigger so that I need fewer to a pot or a bigger pot. The leaves are very attractive, especially if protected from the elements. These plants closely resemble a form sold by Rust-en-Vrede in the 1980-90's that they called Massonia cf. echinata.
Photos 1-2 were taken near Napier in the Overberg by Cameron McMaster. Photos 3-4 were taken by Alan Horstmann from an unknown locality. It has strongly pustulate leaves with distinctive flowers that fit certain taxonomic treatment of this species.
Massonia hirsuta Link & Otto is very similar to Massonia echinata and both The Plant List and botanists in South Africa consider this species to be a synonym of M. echinata. As described, this entity can be distinguished by very thick filament tubes of more than 1 mm (the thickness of the filament tubes are so big that they close the throat of the floral tube) and the ciliate upper surface of the bracts. The flowers are strongly scented. Photos were taken by Nhu Nguyen of plants grown under this name. Photo 1 shows the ciliate margins of the bracts.
Massonia jasminiflora is widespread in the Eastern Cape and into the Free State, at relatively high altitudes in montane grassland and stony ground. The leaves are sometimes with reddish streaks, sometimes with pustules, pustulate hairy, or knobbly, up to 6 cm long. The flowers are white, often strongly scented like jasmine. Although this species occurs in a summer-rainfall area, it grows and flowers in winter in cultivation. Because of the wide range of this species, there are many variations and these variations may reflect different species. Studies are ongoing on this species group. Photos 1-4 were taken by Cameron McMaster and photo 5 from Mary Sue Ittner.
Massonia pustulata was first described by Nikolaus Joseph von Jaquin in 1791 and illustrated in his 1804 work Plantarum rariorum horti caesarei Schoenbrunnensis descriptiones et icones. This species based on Jacquin has pustulate leaves and a greenish base of the stamens and opening of the floral tube (similar to the Napier form). A recent paper by Wolfgang Wetschnig et al. STAPFIA 97 (2012): 210–221 suggests various recent authors called Massonia pustulata in error, and not what Jacquin actually meant by the name. They were actually describing plants that more closely resembled the type species of Massonia longipes Leighton with a pink base of the stamens and opening of the floral tube. Here we are treating them as Massonia pustulata in the broad sense since that is the name people are using who are growing them. Thus, as defined here, the leaves vary from mildly to strongly pustulate (pustules ~ 1 mm in diameter). Certain forms can have maroonish streaks or mosaic on a green background to almost completely purple. The flowers are cream to pink and the stamens are 16-24 mm long. Plants often bloom in winter.
The photos below were taken by Gottfried Milkuhn. Photo 1 shows the plant that matches to the original description of M. pustulata.
Photos 1-4 by Mary Sue Ittner. Photo 1 shows a plant with pustulate leaves and the flowers as they are first opening and then more developed. Photos 2-4 show plants in subsequent years and photo 4 shows pollination by a hoover fly. Photo 5 by Nhu Nguyen shows a form with completely purple leaves.
The photos below by Nhu Nguyen show various forms of this species.
The photos below were taken by Cameron McMaster near Agulhas and Arniston.
Photos by David Pilling the first is of seeds on a 10 mm grid; the second shows a germinating seed on a 1 mm grid.
Massonia pygmaea (syn. Neobakeria heterandra, Massonia heterandra) is a very dainty little miniature Massonia with short tufts of white flowers between prostrate leaves that usually only up to 30 mm long. There are two subspecies. Best grown in pots, in sandy free draining potting mixture, in full sun. Dry off completely during summer dormancy.
Massonia setulosa Baker is native to the area between Caledon and Heidelberg in the Western Cape Province. This species is not listed in the South African Biodiversity Institute checklist and is treated as a synonym of Massonia echinata by The Plant List. As described by Baker, it can be distinguished by having six gibbosities (rounded hump or protuberance) in between the bases of the filament and tepals with a sigmoid curve. The sigmoid curve of the tepals can be seen in photo 1 below. All photos below were taken by Gottfried Milkuhn grown from seeds collected in Napier. Photo 1 shows the first time blooming of this plant.
Massonia sempervirens U.Müll.-Doblies, Milkuhn & D.Müll.-Doblies was described in 2010 based on a cultivated plant that was grown from wild-collected seed in Prince Albert, RSA. It is reported to most resemble Massonia hirsuta based on the absence of a sigmoid curve in tepal base, the glabrous bracts and smaller filaments of up to 5 mm long. Plants remain evergreen in cultivation (with water), although those who have studied Massonia species in habitat have never observed an evergreen character. There is controversy about whether M. sempervirens is a distinct species, just another form of M. jasminiflora or another published species. It is listed here as an entry based on the validly published name, but its true species identity will require more detailed studies. The photos were taken by Gottfried Milkuhn. Photos 1-5 depict a progression of blooming from the type specimen from Prince Albert. Photo 6 is apparently the same species from a somewhat doubtful origin: it is a three years old seedling which popped up among M. jasminiflora seedlings from Winburg in the Free State.
Massonia spp. as stated above (because this genus needs a lot of work) includes many species that we cannot either place into a species or that are new species to be described. We post photos of these entities below.
Massonia sp. Addo was originally collected as seeds from Addo, RSA. These plants were distributed through the PBS BX by Roy Herold. Roy describes the flowers as having a "bewitching perfume". Photo 1 by Jacob Knecht and photos 2-4 were taken by Nhu Nguyen.
Massonia sp. Roggeveld was grown from seeds collected and distributed by Silverhill Seeds from the Roggeveld as Daubenya marginata. Although it didn't turn out to be D. marginata the plants are very interesting, beautiful, and fragrant, and may represent a different species of Massonia. The leaves start out mottled maroonish, then turn completely green as they mature. The flowers start out white then turning pink as they deliquesce. Photos 1-6 below were taken by Nhu Nguyen. Photos 2-3 show the plant blooming for the first time after 3 years from seeds. Photos 4-5 show the plant blooming the second time with a much more robust inflorescence.
Massonia wittebergensis U.Müll.-Doblies & D.Müll.-Doblies was described in 2010. The name is derived from a record made by the Drège brothers on the southern slopes of the Witteberg (near the present town of Lady Grey) at an altitude of 7000-8000 ft (2000-2400 m) in January 1833. The species has subsequently been found at other high altitude localites in the Southern Drakensberg, such as Naude's Nek and Ben Macdhui. So far as is known, it is the only summer flowering Massonia with peak flowering in December and going dormant in winter in habitat. According to the description it is the only species with "a very characteristic indumentum on the upperside of the leaves of laterally compressed bristles of 0.6 up to 1.0 mm in length which are often curved and sometimes forked, and bearing on the rounded top protruding cells".
The first two photos from Cameron McMaster were taken January 2008 of plants growing in gravel pockets above Tiffendell on the way up to the summit of Ben Macdhui.
The photos below were taken by Bob Rutemoeller and Mary Sue Ittner at Naude's Nek. A small coin in one of the photos gives a good idea of how small these plants are and another shows the gravelly habitat.
The photos below were taken by Jacob Knecht of plants in cultivation.
For more information and some spectacular close-up photos see the Wisley Alpine Log written by Paul Cumbleton.