When a plant has a name like Gloriosa superba, you expect something special, and this plant does not disappoint. It is surely one of the most beautiful of all flowers, with its upturned petals in various shades of red, orange, and yellow that give it the common name of flame lily. G. superba is native to much of southern and tropical Africa and tropical Asia, and I have been surprised to discover that it is reliably hardy in my piedmont garden. My batch of seed-grown plants are currently blooming, both in a large pot and (as seen above) in a sunny, fairly dry flower bed.
G. superba is a deciduous vine which grows from elongated underground tubers. The leaves have twining tendrils at their tips that allow the vine to scramble up and over other plants or to cling to a trellis.
The vines grow rapidly during the spring and put on a wonderful show over a fairly long period during the summer.
In the autumn, the vines die back, and the plant goes dormant for the winter. In the garden, the dormant tubers seem to be able to tolerate some moisture, although the soil should probably be well drained. In pots, they can be stored completely dry. Sometimes I remove the tubers from their pots and store them all winter long in a paper bag. I have also left some in a large pot of dry soil, unwatered for five months. The tubers don’t seem to care either way.
Although its common name is flame lily, G. superba is a member of the Colchicaceae, not the Liliaceae. However, the form of its flower is very similar to that of many true lilies. For instance, this Lilium leichtlinii flower also has upswept petals with a ring of anthers below:
I suspect that the similar morphology reflects adaptation of both plants to pollination by butterflies. An odd aspect of the floral anatomy of G. superba is the angle at which the style attaches to the bottom of the flower:
Some lilies have curving styles, but I’m not aware of any that bend to this extent. Consequently, the flower can only be pollinated by a butterfly approaching from one side. The flower is basically radially symmetric and has anthers pointing in all directions, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to guide a pollinator to the stigma. The style does generally point away from the stem, though, and perhaps that is sufficient to get the stigma into the flight path of the pollinators.
Kew suggests that G. superba may also be pollinated by sunbirds, but I’m not sure how plausible that is. Most sunbirds perch to feed on nectar, and a sunbird clinging to the stem of the Gloriosa vine or its support plant would be on the wrong side of the flower to effect pollination. An alternative explanation is that sunbirds visit G. superba to seek insect prey .
G. superba tubers are readily available in the spring from bulb vendors, but when I grew plants from purchased tubers, color break in the flowers suggested that they were virused. I subsequently obtained some virus-free seed and found it fairly easy to germinate. The first seedlings bloomed two years from germination. The plants have the potential to become invasive weeds in mild climates, so be careful about planting them out in the garden.
One final word of warning: G. superba produces an array of potentially lethal alkaloids, including colchicine, and all parts of the plant are highly toxic. Avoid contact with the sap, don’t allow children to pick the flowers, and keep pets that might chew on leaves away from the plants. The tubers are particularly poisonous, so don’t store them with your sweet potatoes, OK?
- Cheke, RA, Mann, CF, Allen, R (2001) Sunbirds: A Guide to the Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Spiderhunters, and Sugarbirds of the World, Christopher Helm Publishers, London, page 314.