Vivid watsonia puts on a breathtaking display
BY no means a common plant in gardens, watsonia lights up any garden that contains it. It produces spikes of brilliant orange-red flowers over one metre tall from a clump of spiky sword-shaped evergreen leaves. The flowers are tubular and open-mouthed, each 40cm spike carrying 30 flowers or more.
Watsonia is a member of the iris family, related to irises, gladiolus and crocus, and it is native to South Africa. It is found grown in that country in high mountain meadows, in fairly moist soil but not wet, and these conditions approximate to those in this country. The flower stems are slender but wiry and very robust and never need staking, even in a windy garden. The clump spreads outward slowly, eventually reaching the size of a large red-hot poker plant or pampas grass. Its size makes it very suitable for a large garden, although it is small enough to be accommodated in a smaller area too.
If several plants are used in a few places in borders or flower beds, the effect is breathtaking, each one playing off the other and flowers lasts for several weeks at the end of July. The light, but vivid, orange-red colour is unusual and the sharply upright habit of the flower spike creates a dramatic effect.
The usual form seen in Irish gardens is Watsonia pillansii. There are several other species with pink or white flowers but these are unusual in gardens because they are hard to get to buy.
Even the orange-flowered form is not often seen for sale in garden centres, although more in recent years, but it is usually passed on by keen gardeners and the orange kind is well known to self-sow with seedlings popping up near the parent.
Watsonia is not completely hardy, and it took a hammering in the recent cold winters and it is generally seen in gardens in mild areas anyway. The orange species is the most hardy and many plant recovered. In a normal winter, just the tips of the leaves are touched by frost in winter.
Choose well-drained soil that does not dry out in summer for watsonia. It is a vigorous grower but should not be over-fed because too much feeding will leave it soft and more prone to frost damage in winter. Do not cut away the leaves at any stage because these make a protective cover against frost.
Watsonia is easily grown from seeds or by division, although it reacts badly to any root disturbance. It is best moved in late spring when it has an opportunity to start re-growth straightaway. Seek it out now in flower.