Photo by Melody

PlantFiles: Climbing Onion, Sea Onion
Bowiea volubilis

Family: Hyacinthaceae
Genus: Bowiea (BOW-we-a) (Info)
Species: volubilis (vol-OO-BIL-iss) (Info)

Synonym:Schizobasopsis volubilis

5 vendors have this plant for sale.

32 members have or want this plant for trade.

Tropicals and Tender Perennials
Vines and Climbers

Unknown - Tell us

3-6 in. (7-15 cm)
6-9 in. (15-22 cm)

USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 C (30 F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 C (35 F)
USDA Zone 11: above 4.5 C (40 F)

Sun Exposure:
Sun to Partial Shade

Parts of plant are poisonous if ingested

Bloom Color:
Pale Green

Bloom Time:
Late Spring/Early Summer
Mid Summer


Other details:
Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater

Soil pH requirements:
Unknown - Tell us

Patent Information:

Propagation Methods:
By dividing rhizomes, tubers, corms or bulbs (including offsets)

Seed Collecting:
Allow pods to dry on plant; break open to collect seeds

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By palmbob
Thumbnail #1 of Bowiea volubilis by palmbob

By Kaelkitty
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By Toxicodendron
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By Happenstance
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By nancyanne
Thumbnail #5 of Bowiea volubilis by nancyanne

By palmbob
Thumbnail #6 of Bowiea volubilis by palmbob

By GardenerGardner
Thumbnail #7 of Bowiea volubilis by GardenerGardner

There are a total of 39 photos.
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16 positives
No neutrals
No negatives

Gardeners' Notes:

Positive paulandreac On Feb 14, 2014, paulandreac wrote:

I need help!!!
I've had 3 Bowiea volubilis since 2001, today when going to water them I found 2 are getting rotten, I don't know what to do, is it possible to save them? maybe cutting the bulb and taking sections... how to do that?

Positive Rustycactus On Oct 20, 2010, Rustycactus from Alice Springs
Australia wrote:

I live in central Australia and I love to grow Cacti and Succulents as they thrive in the hot arid region. I bought 2 climbing onions 25 years ago and they seem to florish here. I let them stay dry during dormacy periods and occasional water during growth ( dry out between drinks ) as they are susceptable to rot. Towards the end of the growing period they flower profusely and develop seed pods which I harvest and plant out the black seeds. The seeds germinate easily and the vines can grow up to 15 feet or more as I have some growing at the base of a windmill tower and they reach the top where they develop the characteristic green feathery tendrills. They are one of my favorite plants!

Positive stefanbotha On Sep 16, 2010, stefanbotha from Pietermaritzburg
South Africa wrote:

This is an indigenous bulb of South Africa, where I live(southern hemisphere). It is winter dormant and will devide when reaching a mature age within a 4-5 year period. It is ideal for hanging baskets as the plant produces a long drooping stems with small green flowers. It dies back, don't cut it back, just leave it. When dormant don't water even if tempted, the bulb is likely to rot. It will produce newd growth in late spring/early summer with a profusion of flowers that sets thousands of small black seeds that will germinate easily when collected. Sow in a 10cm tray, just cover with a light layer of seedling mix...germination happens natually in late summer

Positive Leafhead On Sep 6, 2010, Leafhead from Madison, WI wrote:

I recently received one as a gift and I am just fascinated with it!
I don't know much about it.
Mine seems to be going dormant. Should I cut back on watering, or will it come back?
I recently moved and that has been stressful for all my plants and animals.

Positive Seaonion On Jan 4, 2009, Seaonion from Denver, CO wrote:

My mother was enamored with unusual succulents and cacti, so when I saw a sea onion in the San Francisco Bay Area, I purchased for her. This was in 1978. I transported it soon thereafter to Denver, Colorado where she had it until she died. I have now inherited this lovely sea onion and its offshoots (baby sea onions) now number about thirty. It seems to be user friendly and has never truly complained about much... Since it had a tendency to grow and wind itself in and around my levelor blinds (southfacing), I cut it back to ground zero, transplanted it to two larger containers westfacing, direct sun, and held my breath until the first little green sprout appeared. This was about three months ago and now I have that wonderful profusion of green loveliness that these plants are known for. There isn't a visitor who doesn't comment on this and no one in Colorado has ever seen one....Don't be afraid to take it to ground zero to get rid of the dead growth which of course is often intertwined with new growth. It will come back quickly.

Positive oznick On Jan 1, 2009, oznick from 2047
Australia wrote:

i've loved succulents/cactaceae ever since i'd learned how to look after growing things, and this is one of my faves. my partner gave me a small bowiea volubilis bulb he'd seen in a nursery/plant shop somewhere 15 years ago, and i repotted it and left it to get on with it. over the years i just watered it when i remembered, let it live outdoors (sydney climate is adequate for it to survive) and over the years it grew and split until i had a fair number of them crowding the old pot, but putting out their lovely soft green cloud of growth. this year i repotted the main bulb (which is now the size of a cricket ball) and potted some of the others close to it in the main pot. i've noticed that i've had a few bulbs growing in other plants so they've obviously self seeded over the years... i've now got a beautiful pot of a number of bulbs with the oldest in the centre, and each has put out two growth shoots, so i expect i'll have more next year.

the main bulb has put up a growth shoot that has reached over 3 m and which i've directed to grow over a conical metal armature so that now the whole plant looks like a metre tall "Cousin It". flowers are forming and i hope to get some more seed at the end of the season. in winter it lives outdoors on a high, windswept apartment balcony on sydney harbour, but in spring (october/november) it comes back every year with a bang. this year i've kept it indoors in a brightly lit loungeroom that gets direct afternoon/western sun, turning the pot regularly or the tendrils will lengthen only on one side, towards the sun. the wind on the balcony is sometimes strong enough to damage the tip of the growth area at the end of the "vine" which then prevents the plant from achieving its full length, but causes the rest of the plant to "bulk up". i feed it seaweed tonic mixed in water when it's been dry a few days, and it seems happy... from my reading in books and websites about bowiea it seems i might be doing the "wrong" thing, but the plant doesn't seem to know that!

Positive palmbob On Dec 27, 2008, palmbob from Acton, CA (Zone 8b) wrote:

We love this plant. My wife, who is really not that into plants, find these fascinating and has adopted all ours as hers now. This last summer was a particularly hot and dry one in southern California and I just didn't water this plant much (been rotting a few succulents in the heat from over -watering and been nervous about this plant now that my wife loves it so much).. and it started to get soft and a tad on the mushy side. I figured I had done something very wrong and it was on its way out... but after a few weeks it kept making new foliage, so I figured I had nothing to lose and watered it well... and wala! it firmed right up! Now I water it freely and the more water it gets the better it does... I don't water it at all in the winter, but it rains all winter long, so it obviously can tolerate water then, though rain water is a lot easier on plants than tap water is. So for those who happen to not be watering their plant and it's getting soft, it probably needs more water. Don't be afraid (as I was). Pretty hardy plant!

Winter versus summer grower? Many sources claim one or the other. I claim both. But I can tell you from personal experience that this plant, at least here in Southern California, definitely does most of its growing, at least in terms of making vines, in the rainy winter months. When it's hot and dry in the summers, many lose the vines and go dormant. I have not seen one go dormant in our winters. So I would call this an 'opportunistic' grower, with tendencies towards winter growth. That does NOt appear to be the case in its native land, South Africa, where those folks claim this is a summer grower... that may be because rains there in the summer and not the winter... so this is a plant that seems to grow best when it rains, whether that be summer, as in South Africa, or winter, as in Southern California.
Here's an article I wrote on this plant for Davesgarden:

Positive greenjulia On Dec 26, 2008, greenjulia from Birmingham, AL wrote:

I have had this plant for about 9 months; several weeks ago TWO stems began to emerge from the bulb. The stems have not grown very much at all, though. I recently read that two stems means that the bulb is getting prepared to divide!

Positive ilovemyplants On Mar 13, 2007, ilovemyplants from Meriden, CT wrote:

I too like some others here inherited this plant from my mother.I can still remember in 1968 as a child being with her on a warm spring Saturday as she bought this strange little plant from a local department store & asking her "why are you buying this little onion in dirt if your only gonna cook it?" She just smiled at me & said "Its a plant to put in the kitchen windowsill just like the others I have there" And from that little plant I now have several others that are all large bulbs each in thier own pots.I personally classify Bowiea volubilis as one as those durable,foolproof,old fashioned houseplants that carries its own unique stature,charm & sentimentality in the plant hobby...

Positive GardenerGardner On Nov 25, 2006, GardenerGardner from Lexington, MA (Zone 6a) wrote:

I absolutely adore this oddball wonder! I was given a single bulb over 25 years ago and it is still is with me. My plant has accomanied me through numerous moves, college, marriage, divorce, deaths, remarriage, children and careers. Mine has lived happily is so-so soil, being watered only when dried out. It blooms a myriad of tiny star-like white flowers in the spring and if I'm lucky will bloom twice in a year. It dies back to nearly nothing annually. I move it about the house where it gets sunlight. I feed it once in a while; it appears happy with little intervention. I agree it prefers to be pot-bound; I have placed a spiraled trellis in the pot to support the tangle of winding growth. The rim of the trellis that sits in the soil provideds "a pot within a pot" and therefore stimulates the bulb to divide. I have started another bulb that is doing well yet grows very slowly. I was excited to read another gardener gets seeds. Have yet to see seeds. Would LOVE seeds to try!
Everyone who views the Sea Onion inquries...thinks it a bit weird..but wants one!

I rarely see them on sale in my local nurseries yet this year I did. A single healthy bulb with nice growth was about $30.

Positive Gourd On May 23, 2005, Gourd from Mesilla Park, NM wrote:

I have grown this plant for about a year, this is it's first bloom. I am assuming it likes it here in Southern California because it has sprouted two shoots when the first shoot was cut off while shipping to me and the fact that it bloomed and has other buds forming. The flower is indeed greenish yellow and tiny. Looking forward to it splitting and making more bulbs.

Positive Happenstance On Apr 15, 2005, Happenstance from Northern California, CA wrote:

One of the comical oddballs in my greenhouse collection...ugly little ball that produces frothy strands of foliage and the palest yellow delicate flowers late winter - late spring.

Positive kakteen On Feb 25, 2005, kakteen from Washougal, WA wrote:

Great little odity! Easy to care for, and an interesting conversation piece when the bright green sprawling mass of greenery begins to grow.
Last summer when my Bowiea bloomed, one of the blooms developed a seed pod. I let it ripen on the plant, and when it started to split open, I removed eight shiny black seeds. I then wrapped the seeds in a damp piece of facial tissue and put them into a small plastic bag under a bright light untill they sprouted (in about three weeks). Out of the eight seeds, six sprouted and are now begining to form tiny bulbs with a long green shoot.
I grow my Boweia indoors under a grow light with my other cactus and succulent plants.

Positive retromom On Jun 15, 2004, retromom from Orleans, MA wrote:

i inherited this plant 15 years ago, i have come to the conclusion that it prefers to be very potbound. it has lived in the winter in my bathroom window, direct eastern morning light. in the summer it lives on the deck, under the awning with no direct light, but still in the easterly direction. it blooms every so often, in late summer. the blooms are the same color as the rest of the plant, so you need to watch closely. it took years for this plant to acclaimate. this is not a plant for the impatient gardner. my patience was due to the fact that it outlived my mother in law, and it had been a gift from her. but everyone wants to know "what is it?" she had had a house in st. thomas, and a greenhouse on cape cod. so i'm really not sure of the plants origin. it has always interested me and i would love to know more. i have not established any tried and true method to make it happy except by trial and error. if it is hanging somewhere that you will have to move it, weave it's asparagras type shouts back onto it's self. the tendrils are easily broken, and this can impede it's growth back, at the very least by a year. no kidding. if it's happy, it's this wonderful, weird thing.

Positive HarryNJ On Oct 29, 2003, HarryNJ from Ocean Grove, NJ (Zone 7a) wrote:

In moderate to full sun you'll get dozens of flowers on each shoot, not that they are much to look at being very small and green. Prefers a sandy, well drained soil and should be kept pretty dry when the shoots die down or else the bulbs may rot.

It is generally considered a succulent in the broad sense. Mealy bugs seem to be a problem for me, especially in older specimens that have formed a clump of bulbs. They hide in the residue of the old, dry, dead bulb scales. So I find it is best to either keep them divided (when not in a shoot-growth phase) or just really keep the bulbs free of dead bulb scales.

Very easy to propagate, any small (or large) fragment of a nice green bulb scale will sprout little baby bulbs if allowed to callus on the edges when simply placed on a bright windowsill. Just leave them until they have pulled all the nourishment they can from the "mother" bulb scale which will then dry up, then remove them and pot up.

Overall an interesting and odd-looking plant that is easy to grow.

Positive Monocromatico On Oct 28, 2003, Monocromatico from Rio de Janeiro
Brazil (Zone 11) wrote:

This is a bulb from southern Africa that prefers subtropical climates rather than tropical. Its a green, onion-like scaled bulb, with thick scales, 15cm diameter. It can be planted undergrounds, with a thin soil layer on it, or just leave it *on* the ground, it will root anyway, and the chances of getting rot are smaller this way rather than planted undergrounds (although it grows slower).

From each bulb emerges a green, fleshy, leafless and ramified stem. It looks like an asparagus, but is much more tender, and tends to curl around anything it finds on its way. It will need some support, or it will just go down and lay on the ground, where it will most likely rot.

After a couple of months the stem dries and fades, but the bulb produces another one right next. Each bulb produces one stem, so if a bulb starts to shout 2 or more, its probably getting divided from inside. In this case, you should wait until the outer scales fade, so you can divide the bulbs manually, avoiding damaging the plant - the green bulb is the main photosynthetic organ of this species. The flowers come on the end of the ramifications, but they are small and greenish. My grandpa grew this plant for 40 years and never saw a flower. I grow it for 5 years and Ive seen 2 so far...

Its a strange plant that has a sentimental value for me (enhirited it from my grandpa) and can be very beautiful, since the stem can be used to compose nice textures, and the bright green color can contrast with most of shade plants. It needs to be put away from the sun (full shade). It likes well drained, organic soil and regular watering.


This plant has been said to grow in the following regions:

Phoenix, Arizona
Clayton, California
Corona, California
Reseda, California
San Jose, California
Simi Valley, California
Aspen, Colorado
Denver, Colorado
Meriden, Connecticut
Bartow, Florida
Brooksville, Florida
Tampa, Florida
Nottingham, Maryland
Lexington, Massachusetts
Orleans, Massachusetts
Oneonta, New York
Bessemer City, North Carolina
Fremont, Ohio
Portland, Oregon
Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania
Portland, Texas
Madison, Wisconsin

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