Don’t worry, they don’t bite

Clearing alien vegetation from the land is important to prevent further spread, but there is also the hope that somewhere beneath the impenetrable thicket some semblance of the native flora has remained intact. In the few places where aliens do grow on our land, they are not very thick. But the odd patch is so dense, that it appears to have supplanted everything that was there before. However, all does not appear to be lost. Now that light and rain can penetrate the ground, we have a few tough plants that have been given a new lease of life. One of them is the brightly coloured cobra lily, Chasmanthe aethiopica.

Chasmanthe aethiopica (Iridaceae) emerging amongst the cut-down Port Jackson (Acacia saligna)

Chasmanthe aethiopica emerging amongst the cut-down aliens

Flowering spike of Chasmanthe aethiopica (Iridaceae)

Flower of Chasmanthe aethiopica showing allusion to cobra head

Chasmanthe aethiopica is a member of the iris family that likes to grow amongst bush and scrub, often on the edge of forests. It is widespread from just north of Cape Town, along the south coastal belt as far east as the Kei River in the Eastern Cape. The plants form extensive clumps of corms. The new sword-shaped but rather soft leaves appear with the first of the autumn rains. By early summer the plants have finished and died down again, remaining dormant during the heat. It is an easy plant to grow in gardens that don't receive frost and flowering in autumn and winter, it provides good colour before the rest of the bulbs appear. However, it loses out in its popularity to the taller more striking relative, Chasmanthe floribunda. Its ability to survive some shade is also welcome, although it is unlikely to flower so well in such positions.

The common name for Chasmanthe aethiopica comes from the allusion of the arched flower tube with spreading lobes to the hood of a cobra, but there is nothing to worry about from these flowers. Instead, the cobra lily is particularly good for birds. The flowers are typical of bird-pollinated flowers: bright red in colour, long curved tubular flower matching that of a sunbirds bill, and plenty of nectar as a reward. Furthermore, the seeds are almost as attractive, being bright orange in colour and with a fleshy sweet skin. These are much sought after by birds such as red-wing starlings.

Clump of Chasmanthe aethiopica (Iridaceae)

Clump of Chasmanthe aethiopica in cleared area

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