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Turquoise Puya

Cyrtanthus herrei - Fire Lily

Botanical print by Gillian Condy

The striking Cyrtanthus herrei - the "Fire Lily" is one of South Africa's most beautiful bulbs.  Each autumn it puts on a striking floral show of orangey, trumpet shaped blooms.  The plant is handsome even without blooms, with its exposed bulb and twisted, strap-like leaves.  Some nice pictures of the flowers are here.  This is one of the holy grails of bulbs, rarely seen in cultivation, and almost never available for sale.

The bulb multiplies readily, eventually forming a large clump of bulbs that mostly sit above the soil.  Its leaves are usually evergreen, but most of the growth occurs during winter.  Its bluish-green leaves are upright and about 1 to 1 feet tall.  In late summer or early autumn, the bulb sends up a 2 foot-tall flower stalk topped with 15 to 25 pendulous blooms.  The 2-inch flowers are mostly salmon-orange in color, with creamy-yellow on the flared tips.  They are pollinated by sunbirds in the wild, and by hummingbirds here in California.  This species may be crossed with some other Cyrtanthus species to create new hybrids.

The plant comes from an arid climate that is warm during the day, cool at night, and without frost.  While it can tolerate temperatures in the low 90s (34C), it's possible that it won't thrive if nights are regularly warm (above 65F/18C).  It needs protection from frost during winter.  It grows best in a small pot in a fast-draining soil mix.  A typical mix is 2 parts pumice rock, 2 parts coarse sand, and 1 part compost or coir fiber.  Most cactus soils should work too.  Keep the bulb about 2/3 exposed to prevent rot.  The plant likes part-sun to full-sun during winter, and some shade during hot summer afternoons.  It looks the best with regular, light watering, but keep the soil on the drier side during summer.  In the right conditions, it is a very easy bulb.

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