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Friday, September 16, 2011

Coral Drops, Bessera elegans, Asparagaceae

Garden plants drift in and out of fashion and this vibrant, late summer-flowering species seems to have been well enough known in Edwardian times to feature in popular gardening dictionaries, but in half a century of gardening I'd never encountered it - until I found its bulbs on sale in a local garden centre earlier this year. In The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening, edited by George Nicholson who was Curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the latter years of the 19th. century, it's described as "an elegant little half-hardy, squill-like bulbous plant from Mexico" and Nicholson's advice for growing it holds good today, even though the 'bulbs' he mentions are actually corms. "It requires good drainage [and] .... if cultivated in pots, a plentiful supply of water from commencement of growth until ripening off", he recommended. I've grown it in pots in my conservatory, followed his century-old instructions to the letter and been rewarded this month with a display of these scarlet flowers, with their blue stamens and style. They're held aloft on 30cm.tall stems, as shown in the illustration below that must have been produced at around the time that the plant was first grown in British gardens. It deserves to be more widely grown today, even though it's not hardy - so you need to dry off and store its corms after the foliage dies down in autumn.
There seems to be some controversy about the classificaton of the plant and the Pacific Bulb Society, which has some useful information on the species, mentions that recent opinion places it in the family Themidaceae, whch I've never encountered before. Their web site illustrates a strikingly coloured purple cultivar and also mentions that Bessera may be synonymous with the very similar genus Behria: all very confusing.

[Image from Edwards's Botanical Register; Consisting of Coloured Figures of Exotic Plants Cultivated in British Gardens; with their History and Mode of Treatment. London 25: t. 34 (1839). Source: ]