(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 12, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

Surprising mimicry!

One of the benefits of sharing my knowledge of unusual plants comes when a reader gives me information on a plant I never knew existed. The plants in the genus Massonia fall in this category. Thanks to plantgeek88, I now know about a new (to me) group of plants displaying several very desirable characteristics. This information is especially applicable to those of you who are winding down your gardening activities in preparation for the upcoming winter.

Massonia is comprised of six species of bulbous plants from dry areas in South Africa. One thing that struck me as soon as I saw pictures of the plants is how similar in some ways these plants are to Welwitschia plants. Both produce only two leaves, both come from Africa, both produce fruiting structures or blooms from the center of the plant instead of more leaves, and both have underground storage organs to tide them over during adverse environmental conditions. This could be called mimicry but since these two genera do not occur in the same locales, I just say that I am intrigued by and enjoy the similarities without feeling the need to attach a particular reason to their manifestation.

Flowers when you need them most

Massonia longipesThese plants are just the thing for the winter windowsill because most of the species have a dormant period during our Northern Hemisphere summertime. That means that when the weather here is most bleak and dreary, these cheery plants will be in leaf and bloom, lending their beauty and fragrance to blunt the winter blues. And fragrant they are, as some are reminiscent of jasmine while others smell of honey. Interestingly, these fragrances serve not to attract butterflies or bees, but rather rodents such as gerbils, which serve as pollinators while they are feasting on the nectar.

Massonia are reputed to be easy to grow from seeds, which is a good thing because they rarely produce offsets as other bulbous plants do. In size they range from relative giants with leaves about 26 cm long (Massonia depressa), to diminutive jewels with a leaf span of about 6 cm (Massonia pygmaea). Some species have bumpy or hairy leaves, while others have reddish mottling or variegation. Some of the most conspicuous flowers produced have long colorful stamens that rise above the flower cluster. (see thumbnail picture above, right).

A closely related genus, Daubenya, has plants of similar morphology but which have more than two leaves, and some of them have even more conspicuous flower clusters. They, too, grow from bulbs and hail from South Africa.

Growing one yourself

Since they come from a seasonally arid climate, these plants should not be kept moist year round. They need a well-draining soil mix that does not retain too much water, and when dormant they should be left mostly dry. During the winter growing season a regular watering and light fertilization low in phosphorus is essential to the health of these plants. They should be provided as much sunlight as possible when in their growing period.

More to Learn

Below are some links to excellent pages on Massonia, showing photos of the species as well as more information about their unique characteristics.

Pacific Bulb Society Massonia page

Paul Cumbleton's Wisley Alpine Log on Massonia

Paul Cumbleton's Wisley Alpine Log on Daubenya and cultivation of both Massonia and Daubenya

Below are sources where you might be able to purchase these wonderful plants:

Border Gateway Bulbs (Australia)

Cotswold Garden Flowers (UK)

Top Tropicals LLC

Paul Leondis - Bulbs For Sale

Image Credit:: Public Domain
and KENPEI, GNU Free Documentation License