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Let’s hear it for the Kaffir lily

When I inherited my present garden it was in blissful disarray and had mostly reverted to grass. I eventually discovered a small clump of grassy stems that weren’t doing much. I cleared a space round them and let them be. Eventually, come autumn, they burst joyfully, into flower. I found the foliage had now achieved great beauty.

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The original clump

The flowering spikes were sturdy and each carried several blooms.

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Kaffir lily up close

These had wide open faces and protruding beyond the petals were the hair-like jauntily curled “style”. At the heart of the flower the stamens stood to attention, upholding long bottlebrush anthers coloured coppery-gold.  The flower petals had a soft sheen like healthy skin and were coloured a bright, tangy red shade. This colour lit up the dullest days, even dank November, and some flowers were still hanging in there on Christmas Day. This plant immediately became one of the most valued residents of the garden.

Over the years I have divided the out-of-season rather ragged clumps and tried them elsewhere. I have passed some to friends but the original clump remains. I was originally told that this plant was called ‘The Kaffir Lily’. I looked it up and found the latin name Schizostylis coccinea. I recently bought a book called ‘Creative Planting with Indigenous Plants. A South African Guide’*. I discovered that it now rejoices in several popular names: the book lists ‘Scarlet river lily’ and ‘Crimson flag’, as well as ‘Khahlana’ and the Afrikaanse ‘Rooirivierlelie’.  In its crossover to ‘garden ornamental’ status it has been rebranded, a complete lifestyle make-over in fact. Even the latin name Schizostylis coccinea has been changed to Hesperantha, the Evening flower which appears to indicate its admission to the classical Greek heritage of the western world.

I understand and appreciate that the Europeans arriving in South Africa imported their own place names and indeed their own plants. For many years they tried to recreate the gardens of their original homelands. Much of the native flora was discounted for years until suddenly eyes were opened and they saw what was always there to be seen. Amongst this assembly stood the Kaffir lily, a plant of great beauty, a perfect ’lily of the field’ that had evolved to thrive in that place.

There’s a message (or several) in there somewhere. The plants in my garden stand proudly under the name by which I first knew them.

The Kaffir lily comes in shades of red, pink and white. A friend gave me the ‘Major’ form, twice the size of my originals, and it came into flower in July this year. Counter-intuitively, the Kaffir lily prefers moist positions and fertile soil. It is very tolerant of abuse.

*The book to which I referred ‘Creative gardening with Indigenous Plants. A South African Guide’ is crammed full of delicious plants that we can now buy, it is beautifully produced and is written by Pitta Joffe, published by Briza Publications.

Susan A. Tindall

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