Forest lily, a Victorian favorite, makes a comeback

Photo courtesy of Brent and Becky Bulbs.
Veltheimia bracteata, or forest lily, which grows from a bulb, is an attractive houseplant in most of North America.

Invariably, at one spring flowers show or another, I come across a container of spectacularly grown Veltheimia bracteata (forest lily, winter red hot poker, Cape lily) in lavish bloom. And just like that, serious lust for the plant ensues.

But by then – early spring – it is too late to purchase and plant the bulbs, for they are sold only in the fall, similar to amaryllis bulbs.

And, fickle gardener that I am, I catch sight of other plants, and promptly forget about the forest lily – till the following year’s series of  spring flower shows, whereupon the lust cycle starts all over again.

This fall, however, things were different.  I remembered!  So yesterday, when I potted up the first of the amaryllis bulbs, I also potted three Veltheimias.

For those unfamiliar with the plant, Veltheimia bracteata is quite the stately fashion plate.

Starting in late winter, the tight clusters of tubular flowers (similar to that of Kniphofia), rise on one-foot tall mottled stems above the three-inch wide and one-foot long, spear-shaped, glossy deep-green, undulating foliage.

The waxy, green-tipped blooms – held upright when in bud, but pendulous when open -- hold their color for up to a month.  The blossoms are followed by papery capsules that ripen in mid-summer.

The color of the flowers is variable.  Typically, colors range anywhere from the uncommon greenish-yellow to the “normal” pink with green edging.  However, the pink color runs the entire gamut of shades from the palest of pinks all the way to a deep rosy – almost purple – one.

In recent years some hybridizers have developed some extraordinary bicolor crosses, including a rare, yet a superbly beautiful plant sporting light rose and yellow, tipped with green (V. b. rosalba).

Veltheimias were very popular during the Victorian era, but as with many other plants, they became less fashionable for a period of time, only to see a hearty revival in recent years.

A native of the coastal forests in the eastern Cape area of South Africa, this tender plant  thrives outdoors in mild, frost-free climates, but here in Northern Illinois, indoor pot culture is the only way to go.

A visual delight in full bloom, this easily cultivated bulb should be planted at or just below ground level  -- I planted mine half-in -- in moist, rich, but well-drained soil.

The plant does best in bright light, though not direct sunlight. Good lighting conditions keep the foliage compact as well as help in the development of the flower color. When exposed to bright light, the pink-flowered forms take on a richer rosy-to-purple color.

Veltheimias love to summer outdoors in a sheltered, shady area, although it’s best to cut back on watering somewhat.  Some plants go dormant, others – obviously happy with their environment – remain somewhat evergreen.

Once flowering is finished, watering should be reduced and the plant kept on the dry side during its summer dormancy. New leaves reappear in late summer to fall.  They do not need frequent repotting and can be left undisturbed for many years.

Betty Earl, author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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