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 looks 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. A good reference is The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa written by Graham Duncan in 2016.
Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds wrote a great introduction to the genus for the Pacific Bulb Society email list in 2004:
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 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 cataphylls, some are bristly, and all have long leaves, many of which are spirally arranged. cataphylls 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.
In 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:
- Do not let the bulbs set seeds in two consecutive years, as the bulbs will be weakened and may die
- The old dried leaf bases around the base of the bulb protect the emerging flower. Don't remove them, or the flower may be damaged as it emerges in the summer.
- Keep the plants in full sun when in leaf, but give part shade (to keep the pots relatively cool but dry) when dormant
- Separate the seeds from the fruit pulp before planting, and plant them on the surface of the soil
- Seed-grown plants bloom in four to six years
More information can be found in The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa published in 2016 by Graham Duncan and Field Guide to the Amaryllis Family of Southern Africa & Surrounding Territories published in 2020 by Graham Duncan. The second includes photographs and watercolor paintings by Barbara Jeppe and Leigh Voigt. There's also a good article here. And there are many more photographs on iNaturalist.
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 L. 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. Photos by Paul Sieben from Table mountain. These were taken at the same site over a number of years. The flowering in the dry period is triggered by the first heavy mist or light rain in December, they emerge a day or two later, mostly in sync with the same plants in the area - just flowers no foliage, very striking to see. Photo 1, a single flower from above; photo 2, a single flower from the side (note: whilst the stripes are very prominent on this example it is not true of all); photo 3, cluster of plants and fruit more common on the site; photo 4, cluster of flowers emerging; photo 5, cluster of flowers; photo 6, cluster of flowers a day or two later.
Photo 1, fruit when dry and cut open to show the seeds; photo 2, fruit showing size in relation to a match, when ripe the fruit grows out of the plant almost detaching itself for dispersion; photo 3, a single fruit and plant in the wet season 6 months after flowering; photo 4, flowers emerging during the dry periods (December to January).
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 Paul Cumbleton. Other photos by Alan Horstmann and Gordon Summerfield.
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. The first three photos by Bob Rutemoeller and Mary Sue Ittner of the leaves were 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 were taken by Alan Horstmann.
Gethyllis grandiflora L.Bolus grows in, but is not restricted to Namaqualand. It is winter growing and is found in gravelly or stony red clayey soils on open flats and hilly slopes or sometimes in sand in coastal areas. It has two basal light green sheaths protruding above ground with linear leaves that are straight in the basal half and slightly spirally twisted towards the top. The white cup shaped flowers are sometimes flushed with magenta on the undersides. Tepals are ovate with acute or apiculate tips and stamens are arranged in six groups with six to eight anthers per group with deep yellow pollen. The flowers last 4-5 days. The first two photos from Kenneth Preteroti show the first flowering of plants grown from seed collected in the Richtersveld. The third photo by Nhu Nguyen shows a second year seedling with the leaves already spiraling. First year seedlings do not show this characteristic spiral. The last photo was taken by Gordon Summerfield.
Photos below were taken by Alan Horstmann.
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 a winter growing species of the Western Cape. It has linear, glabrous spirally twisted channelled green leaves with a white leaf base marked with light green or maroon spots and cup shaped sweetly fragrant white flowers. It flowers November-December in habitat in the Southern Hemisphere. 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 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 Paul Cumbleton, second photo by Gordon Summerfield. 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. Photos from iNaturalist taken by Kevin Jolliffe and Tony Rebelo in April and May in South Africa and shared under CC BY-NC and CC BY-SA licenses.
Gethyllis marginata D.Müll.-Doblies grows on flats in reddish sand in the northwestern part of the Southwest Cape. Plants are dwarf with 1-5 dark green leaves with thickened margins; the unscented flowers are white. This species flowers in midsummer (December) after the leaves die back. Photos of the leaves from Alan Horstmann.
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. The first two were taken by Chris Mallek in the Richtersveld National Park, Northern Cape, South Africa. The last two photos by Rachel Saunders.
Photos below were taken by Alan Horstmann.
Gethyllis oligophylla D.Müll.-Doblies is a winter growing species. Information from Alan Horstmann in the 1999 IBSA journal describes it as an extremely rare species found only in the Biedouw Valley, but since then it has been found in other areas. Plants have 2 to 4 leaves. The basal half is spirally twisted and hairy and the apical half is even more twisted and smooth. The white flowers are salver-shaped. Photo by Gordon Summerfield.
Gethyllis oliverorum D.Müll.-Doblies was formally described in Willdenowia 15:469 (1986). The species is a winter-rainfall grower from the Cape region of South Africa, originally known from southwest of Vanrhynnsdorp, in the Langeberg Mountains near Heerenlogement.
Rob Ferber writes "One of the easier species to grow, this smaller Winter-growing Gethyllis species with fine leaves (up to about 1/16" diameter or a bit more) forms a flat whorl on the ground up to about 3" in diameter. The flowers appear in early June for me in Los Angeles, rising quickly after the leaves have mostly dried out. The flowers are low (to 4" tall), brilliant white gems open for two or three days. Winter weather in habitat is characterized by small (less than 1" per event) rainfalls once a week or so, with daytime high temperatures usually 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above the nightime temperatures. Days are reaching the 60's to the 80's occasionally, with nights in the upper 30's to the 50's. Summer weather in habitat has the same day-night temperature swings, reaching the 70's to the 100's in the day and 50's to 70's at night. Rainfall is rare in the summer months, though not totally absent." Photos by Rob Ferber of plants grown in Downtown Los Angeles in 2022, originally sourced from Dylan Hannon.
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). The first three photos were taken by Alan Horstmann. The last two photos were taken by Gordon Summerfield.
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 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 undulata Herb. is considered by the South African Biodiversity Institute and in 2022 by Plants of the World Online 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. The first two photos from Andrew Harvie. The third photo from Alan Horstmann was taken near Middelpos in the Roggeveld. The fourth and fifth 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 from October to December (end of growing season) in the wild. Photos 1-3 by The first two pictures were taken by Cameron McMaster near Swellendam and Napier in the Overberg. The next series of three photos were taken by Julian Slade of his plants flowering 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 first photo was taken by Nhu Nguyen of a mature plant extending its leaves. The next two photos from Alan Horstmann and Gordon Summerfield are of leaves. The last photo from Rachel Saunders shows the seed pods.