Scilla/Merwilla natalensis

Mary Sue Ittner
Mon, 11 Oct 2004 08:09:47 PDT
Dear Brian,

Like Liz I thought the picture of the mystery plants looked a bit like 
Scilla (now called Merwilla by some) natalensis too. But I don't grow very 
many so I don't know what other species look like. The California grown 
plants bloom in April.

However I had this vague memory that when Bill Dijk gave a number of us 
fresh seed of this in December 1997 we discussed this in the old IBS list 
and that people had different experiences with this plant so I have just 
consulted my archives from that time to refresh my memory . Sir Peter 
Smithers was on that list and was growing his in a container (as my plants 
get bigger and bigger I wonder about that) as he said it was too cold in 
Switzerland where he lived to plant them in the ground. He quoted from his 

"Scilla natalensis is a stately creature sometimes two feet high, with a 
fountain of broad beautifully sculptured leaves from the centre of which 
arises a spike of uncountable tiny blue flowers.   Leaves and then flowers 
appear in early autumn.   At their base is a large fat bulb sitting on top 
of the earth in the manner of a Hippeastrum - - - - the exact opposite of 
what we think of as a Scilla.  S.natalensis is a reliable as well as 
elegant pot plant which can be depended on to flower every autumn.  It must 
have a complete rest after the foliage dies down in summer and the 
protection of a frost free place during its season of growth in autumn and 
winter.   To my eye it is beautiful and it lasts in flower for a 
considerable time."

Bill Dijk wrote from the Jack Hobbs and Terry Hatch book (New Zealand 
experience therefore) and this is mostly a direct quote so I'll add quotes:
"Scilla natalensis from South Africa is a highly desirable species for 
large gardens. It forms large clumps,and when located among rocks where the 
huge papery bulbs can be seen, it is very effective. In early summer the 
pyramidal flower spike emerge and quickly grow to 1 meter or more. They are 
covered with hundreds of soft powder blue starry flowers, which appear 
continually for several weeks. The flowers are followed by 40 cm. long 
grey-green leaves,which often have a purple sheen. Bulbs should be planted 
with their lower third below soil level in
autumn or winter. They multiply slowly, seed is therefore the quickest 
method of increase. Seed must be absolute FRESH when sown, as old seed does 
not germinate. It should be sown on the surface or barely covered,and 
germination will be rapid (7-10 days). Small bulbs will form before 
winter,at which time they will become dormant,coming into growth again the 
following Spring. Between 4 and 7 years are required for bulbs of flowering 
size to develop."

Seed sown by me December 1997 bloomed for the first time April 2004 so I 
guess I was in that time frame.

 From Bill "Unfortunately bulbs are not fully hardy, they should be grown 
only in
near frost-free, well drained areas, although it can be grown as a special 
specimen container plant in colder climates,with necessary protection in 

There was a man on the IBS list from British Columbia who reported that he 
had been in the habit of drying off and storing Scilla natalensis through 
his rather cold and definitely wet winters, but one year left some 
outside.  In spite of temperatures down to -12C (about 10 F.) and
flooding, they remained bright green and thriving.  He concluded that it 
appeared they could
be considered evergreen in the NW and probably the SE US. When the bulbs 
were dried off and stored dry over winter they were extremely slow to 
return to growth and then the leaves did not appear until July.

John Ingram gave me a few that he been growing in tiny pots for a long time 
to try in the ground since I had been reluctant to do so with my surviving 
container of the Bill Dijk gift in case I lost it with my wet winters and 
very dry summers. I repotted them in much deeper containers before moving 
them into the ground to give them a chance to get bigger with regular water 
and fertilizer and they immediately appreciated that and began to grow 
rapidly. I put a couple of them in the ground last winter and they did just 
fine, but are now beginning to look very ratty and drying back. The 
pictures Liz put on the wiki of the huge bulbs they have at the UC 
Botanical garden shows them definitely dormant in winter, not evergreen.

So there you have it. Once again there is more than one way to grow the 
same species.

Mary Sue

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