The topic of the week this week is Babiana. Rachel Saunders has provided us with an excellent introduction to this genus. Babiana Babiana is a large genus in the family Iridaceae, consisting of about 80 species. Most of these (about 49 species) are concentrated in the south western Cape, with the rest mainly in Namaqualand and northern Cape. Their range is from southern Namibia to the Eastern Cape to southern Zimbabwe. There is one species from Socotra, off the coast of Somalia, but it is doubtful whether it is actually a Babiana or not. The name Babiana comes from the anglicised version of "Bobbejaan" (baboon) - "babiaantjie" (little baboon), probably because the corms are avidly sought by these animals. As Richard Doutt said in his book "Cape Bulbs", it is hard to think of any other plant genus that is named after the animal that eats it! The plant collector Carl Thunberg used the name "Babianer" in 1882 for the plant called Gladiolus plicatus, now named Babiana disticha, and the genus Babiana was established by Ker in 1802. The corms of Babiana are globose in shape, and are surrounded by numerous reddish-brown densely matted tunics, usually extended into a neck. The plants have very strong contractile roots which pull the corms deep into the ground, presumably to avoid their predators (baboons, humans, porcupines and birds). The foliage is usually lance-shaped, pleated and mostly hairy. In some species the leaves are abruptly cut off, leaving a ragged edge so that one is not quite sure whether they are meant to be like that, or whether something has eaten them! The inflorescence is simple or branched, and the flowers are actinomorphic (regular or symmetrical) or zygomorphic (there is only 1 plane of symmetry in which the flower can be divided in half). The 2 lower tepals are united below into a short of long funnel-shaped tube. The flowers are often blue or mauve, but can be white, cream, yellow, blue, mauve, purple, pink or red - probably the only colours missing are green and orange! Many are beautifully scented. The seed capsules are large and are filled with dark brown seeds. In the new "Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs" there is some interesting information on pollination of Babianas. The scented species usually have short tubes, and they are mostly pollinated by large solitary bees. Most of the long-tubed species are not scented, and they are pollinated by long proboscid flies. Some of the actinomorphic species with open flowers are pollinated by bees, and the two red flowered species (B ringens and thunbergii, formerly Antholyza ringens and plicata) are pollinated by sunbirds (similar to humming birds, but bigger). Most of the species are restricted in their distribution, and are often found in very small areas only. Most grow in stony fine grained clay soils derived from shales. As this is also prime agricultural land, many species are now endangered. If one farmer decides to plough a field for wheat or vines, that may be half or more of the population of a species which is destroyed. Some species such as Babiana nana, villosa, and ringens grow in deep sand, and B thunbergii grows in deep sand right on the beach only meters from the sea. All Babianas are deciduous, either winter or summer growing. Most are winter growing, and I will concentrate on their cultivation. Like most other winter growing (or Mediterranean climate) Irids, they start their growth cycle in autumn when the first rains fall. The leaves push through the soil and the plants grow. They grow through the winter, and as spring approaches, they produce flower buds. Some species flower early in spring, and others late, almost into summer. Most species are in seed in early summer, and as the rains finish and the weather heats up, they go dormant again. To successfully grow them, one needs to remember this growth cycle. Start to water them in autumn, water through the winter, and stop in late spring when the plants show signs of going dormant. They will do best in a sunny aspect with free air circulation. The plants are drought tolerant and they vary in hardiness, but probably will not like anything below 25°F (about -5°C). Growing medium - they all require well drained potting medium consisting of 2 parts sand, 1 part loam and perhaps 1 part compost, depending on the species. Some growers in Cape Town use only sand, and one uses wood shavings from pine trees. He grows almost all his bulbs and corms in this medium, with much success. Because of the contractile roots, Babianas pull their corms to the bottom of the pot, and they grow best in large pots (12 inch or more). Babianas also do well in the garden, and we have planted quite a lot out in our beds. We have some between paving stones (in a similar situation to their natural growth habit) and although our garden is watered year round, they don't seem to rot and they flower profusely each spring. Our garden soil is very sandy and well drained, and perhaps that explains it. Most of the Babianas that are commonly grown are hybrids, mainly of B stricta, but many of the species are far more beautiful and rewarding. The flowers are long lasting and brightly coloured, and many are scented as a bonus. Propagation is usually from seed, and I would recommend sowing them in autumn. John Bryan in his book "Bulbs" suggests sowing in spring, but I am not sure why. Perhaps this applies to people who grow bulbs in very cold areas where the plants cannot survive the cold winters, but I am not sure that the small plants would be big enough when they go dormant. Dormancy occurs when the weather warms up, and it is difficult to stop them from going dormant. We sow our seeds quite early in autumn so that the little plants have a good 4 or 5 months of growth before they go dormant. This means that the corm is a reasonable size and is likely to survive the long dormancy. If you sow the seeds too late, the growth cycle is not long enough and the corms are too small to survive dormancy. This may explain why some plants grow well the first year from seed, but then are never seen again. Germination is stimulated by fluctuation in temperature between warm days and cool nights, as experienced in autumn. The day temperatures should be about 70°F (20°C) and the nights about 50°F (about 10°C) - so don't try to germinate your seeds in a constant temperature regime. The last revision of Babiana is very out of date, and there are many new species that have either been described or are waiting for description. We find them quite difficult to identify as many are quite similar. However, they are really rewarding species to grow as they are not too temperamental about flowering, and generally flower most years in cultivation. In the wild, quite a few species are fire driven, and B nana for example seldom flowers without a fire. Each year at the IBSA (Indigenous Bulb Society of SA) show in September many species are exhibited, so obviously they are fairly reliable.