Easy Pseudo-succulents: Albuca bracteata (aka Pregnant Onion)By Geoff Stein (palmbob)
January 30, 2012
I have so many succulents in the yard and in pots that I sometimes start overlooking the ones that need the least attention and spend most of my time messing with the ones that are more likely to have problems, or are particularly beautiful. Among these myriad overlooked plants I have multiple species of Ornithogalum and Albuca, though only several of these plants has a species name. The rest I got unnamed and I still don't know what they are. One of these succulent bulbs, however, stands out as being not only incredibly easy to grow, but perhaps even bordering on the definition of weed in my yard. If anyone wants to acquire a hardy plant for their succulent garden or collection, this would be a safe one in terms of being able to keep it alive and happy.
In a previous article, I wrote about another easy pseudo-succulent, the Climbing Onion, Bowiea volubulis. Sometimes this and that plant get mixed up. They are related (in the same family) but they are not that similar in their ease of growth and cultivation. The Bowiea is an easy plant to grow, but pales in comparison to how easy this Albuca/Ornithogalum is to grow.
Bowiea volubulis, the Climbing Onion, in its relatively dormant state- hardly growing in summer (left); right is winter growth nearly completely covering plants
Ornithogalum is a large genus which has recently come under enough scrutiny to have many of its species whisked off into a related genus, Albuca. It seems that recently this particular plant, O. longibracteatum, has been reclassified as well. Now it is currently considered, by the bulb experts, as being in the genus Albuca. And its species name has changed as well from longibracteatum to bracteata. I personally am grateful for the change as it has made the spelling problem much easier, and the plant name shorter.
Few related plants: Ornithogalum dubium at a cactus show (left) and an unknown Ornithogalum (perhaps Albuca?) species in my collection (right)
This plant was a member of the family Hyacinthaceae, a family with a lot of well known bulbs in it, and many of them somewhat succulent in nature. However, recently most of the members of this family have been moved to a new family, Scilloideae, including they Hyacynths. I am not sure if there are any members of the old family, or if it has just been moved to synonymy. Succulent may be the wrong word when describing bulbs, as caudiciform is also incorrectly applied to some of these bulb species. The only thing succulent about these is the bulb, and then one might have to refer to all bubs, like tulips and daffodils as succulent, when they are obviously not. But these bulbs have a relatively hardy constitution, tolerating drought exceptionally well, and growing their greenery in all weathers, hot, cold, dry or rainy. I have other bulbs, such as Freesias and some South African bulbs planted throughout my cactus garden, and they do show up seasonally for a brief time. But then they are gone and forgotten, while these continue to make their presence known year round.
The reason this bulb is called the Pregnant Onion is because of the curious way it offsets. It has a mostly above-ground bulb of pale green to yellow green about the size of a baseball. From it come a number of thin, strap leaves about two feet long, flattened with a slight fluting and curling near the tips. As it grows, like any bulb, it sheds its outer layer as a papery thin, somewhat translucent skin. As this one sheds, it sometimes offsets, and little oblong spheres, each with a first ‘leaf', all about the size of marbles, appear as bulges below the outer layer of ‘skin'. Once uncovered, they continue to adhere to the sides of its mother for some time before they fall off and roll to a new location in the garden. Then a new plant grows. If accidentally buried, as I have several times while planting another plant, this species has no problem adjusting to this abnormal depth in the soil and soon enough a new leaf stalk appears out of the ground from this deep underground baby bulb. This Albuca species can be pregnant with a lot of babies (up to a dozen at a time).
Albuca bracteata showing how 'babies' are forming below most recent layer of the 'onion' (left); right shows all the babies more exposed and getting ready to take off on their own (right)
Additionally, this plant flowers repeatedly, showing the typical monocotyledonous units of three petals per flower (this one has six, three on top, three at perfectly offset intervals just beneath). The flowers are white with pale stripes of green up each petal. These flowers are bunched closely along a single raceme that can be up to foot or more in length at the end of a long flower stalk (up to four feet tall, or long, depending on which direction it feels like growing). And they must seed freely as these bulbs end up all over the yard in places far too far away for a baby to have just rolled there.
Shots of Albuca bracteata flowers
Albuca bracteata is a South and East African species that grows along the edge of forests. It has been in cultivation so long that it has naturalized in many temperate and tropical areas around the world. I can personally attest to this plants ability to reproduce quite efficiently, as it has demonstrated so in my own garden. I have dozens of these plants all over the garden (none which I planted) and it has gotten to the point where as soon as see a baby, or a leaf stalk poking up through the ground, I get rid of it. Too many of one plant is too much for my crowded little garden. They are, however, very easy to dig up and remove. So as far as weeds go, they are among the least concerning.
Found this volunteer in the cactus garden a few years ago- no idea how it got there (left); Next year dug it up and potted it and noticed it already is loaded with babies (right)
I have completely ignored pots of these plants for years, getting no water whatsoever over our long, hot spring-summer-fall periods (up to 8 months without a drop of precipitation) and I still have not managed to kill one of these yet. Admittedly the foliage looks pretty sad and burned if not watered for months on end in a potted situation, but they did not have any problems jumping back to life as soon as it rained finally.
plant in pot a few years ago (left) and after cold spell (right) down to 24F- foliage melted by otherwise fine and grew back right away
I have not grown these indoors, but from what I understand, they are commonly sold as house plants and tend to do very well as one. The flowers are faintly but sweetly scented, something probably much more appreciated indoors than out. I would bet they need a lot of sunlight to flower indoors, but as for the rest of their life cycle, they sure seem to have no problem growing in deeply shaded areas of the garden. Plants that bloom indoors do not make seed unless whatever the outdoor pollinator is (bees most likely) are in the house, too.
plant growing indoors (photo by tlc57)
So for those getting into succulents, or just like a curiosity to grow with little worry about failure, this might be one to try out.
Thank you to DalRyanSF for use of photo in the article thumbnail