Not the Littlest Bulb

Autumn sees the appearance of small white candles of Bulbinella trinervis scattered through the fynbos. Their slender columns of starry white flowers top a leafless flowering stem that looks just like the surrounding restios. The open flowers belie the genus’s close relationship to their bold bright cousin, the red-hot pokers, Kniphofia, which have long tubular flowers. However, the larger species do bear a strong resemblance to a northern hemisphere relative, the foxtail lilies, Eremurus. Indeed botanically speaking, apart from their geographical origins, they can be hard to tell apart.

Bulbinella trinervis growing among the fynbos
Bulbinella trinervis growing among the fynbos
Corm and fibrous leaf bases of Bulbinella trinervis (Asphodelaceae)
“Bulb” and leaves of Bulbinella trinervis

The addition of “-ella/-ellus/ellum” to a word is the Latin way of implying a smaller or daintier version. This is known as a diminutive and is often used as a term of endearment. So when Kunth named the genus Bulbinella in 1843, he regarded it as a daintier version of the genus Bulbine. As it is, many of the species of Bulbinella, although not particularly Bulbinella trinervis, are much larger than species of Bulbine. To make matters more confusing, strictly speaking neither Bulbine nor Bulbinella have a bulb in the botanical sense of the word (i.e. swollen leaf bases). Bulbinella rather has a small corm, which is a swollen stem. This is protected by a dense fibrous sheath made from the hardened remains of old leaf bases. So Bulbinella species neither have a bulb, nor are they particularly small compared to their relatives.

Related species

Flowering spike of Bulbinella trinervis (Asphodelaceae)
Bulbinella trinervis flowering spike

Bulbinella trinervis is widespread and common in the south-western Cape (but not the Cape Peninsula itself) as far east as Riversdale. Its white flowers and autumn-flowering time (mainly March to April) makes confusion with other species in the area unlikely. Bulbinella triquetra and Bulbinella divaginata are a similar shape and size (up to 40cm high) but have yellow flowers; the former also flowers in the springtime. Bulbinella graminifolia and Bulbinella cauda-felis have white to pinkish white flowers respectively and can flower as late as December, but they are more robust plants, usually over 50cm high.

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