Beautiful when it flowers and highly sought after for the traditional medicine trade, this member of the Hyacinth family is one of my favourite plants both in the wild and in our garden.

In winter it is entirely dormant. The leaves wither away at the end of summer, and during the dry and colder months of the year only the papery tops of the tubers are visible. In early spring, just when I start wondering  if the entirely dead-looking plant will in fact regenerate, tiny pointed cones of leaves start emerging from the centre of each tuber, gradually lengthening into a collar of leaves, from the centre of which the flower stems may start to protrude.

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Even before being in full flower, the plant provides sculptural interest in the early spring and it is one of the first plants to show signs of life after winter dormancy  

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During the winter months, the dry papery scales on the tubers give no hint of the life that will emerge in the spring

The English name for these plants is Blue Squill, and I have not yet adapted to the change from its former botanical name Scilla natalensis, to the relatively recent Merwillia plumbea. But a plant by any name is just as appealing. I have posted on this plant before, but it has been so lovely this spring (after not flowering at all last year) that I thought it could sustain another post.

During the spring, little by little the flowers stalks grow longer eventually reaching about one metre in length. As the stalks lengthen the bulbs start to swell, and the pale blue flowers start to open successively from the bottom of the flowering spike.

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The Blue Squill flowering on long stalks in the early summer, accompanied by other grassland plants in our garden

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Even before the buds open, the flower heads are already attractive, especially when decorated with reflective raindrops

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The flowers have a faint sweet scent, and the yellow pollen-laden tips to the stamens set off the white and pale blue of the small flowers that are held aloft on tiny stems

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The flowers are often abuzz with honeybees and other pollinators that they attract

The status of the Blue Squill is ‘vulnerable’ as it is diminishing in the wild as a result of it being collected in large quantities for the traditional medicine trade, being one of the most heavily traded medicinal plants in KwaZulu-Natal. It is used for a variety of ailments and illnesses.

The Blue Squill “appears to have significant analgesic and antimicrobial activity” according to a post on the SANBI website, which goes on to say that “phytochemical studies have found that it contains compounds known to possess anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic properties” and noting that such properties “would support its use [in traditional medicine] for the treatment of strains, sprains and cancers”.

The plant is poisonous to some mammals, including sheep. Any sheep that might be tempted to eat new leaves emerging in the spring will die. When raw, the Blue Squill is also fatally poisonous to humans, and so heat is used in the careful preparation of medicines made from this plant.

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As they mature, the long flower spikes often develop a graceful drooping character

The flowers of the Blue Squill usually live up to the “blue” in the name, and various forms can manifest in different shades of pale blue or violet. I have read that there is a white form, which I had not seen until on a hike in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands last weekend, when I photographed it growing wild in uncultivated grasslands.

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The white form growing in bright sunshine in grassland on a ridge overlooking the Lidgetton valley in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands

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Although it was lovely to the rather more compact white form growing wild, I do like the delicate blue of the more common forms, such as this one in our garden

Source: Notten, Alice. 2001. Merwilla plumbea. PlantZAfrica. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). http://pza.sanbi.org/merwilla-plumbea

Posted by Carol

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