Book Review: The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa

This book review was also published in the most recent issue of The Bulb Garden, the newsletter of the Pacific Bulb Society.

Amaryllidaceae cover

Graham Duncan, Barbara Jepp, and Leigh Voigt (2017). The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, Umdaus Press, Pretoria, South Africa.

When I first learned of the impending publication of The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, I wondered whether it would be worth purchasing.  After all, a huge amount of information on South African amaryllids is already available without cost at web sites like the PBS wiki or PlantZAfrica.com, a site maintained by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.  However, early descriptions of the book were uniformly positive, and I have hesitated before to purchase an attractive horticulture book, only to discover that its limited print run has sold out and second hand copies are far beyond my budget.  Thus, when the book finally became available, I searched around for the best price and ordered a copy from a distributor in the United Kingdom.  I was not disappointed.

Considered first as a physical artifact, the book is an impressive specimen.  It is printed on heavy, glossy paper bound together with a satin ribbon bookmark.  The endpapers and tough dust jacket are beautifully decorated with line drawings of amaryllid inflorescences and the dust jacket also has a lovely color illustration of Brunsvigia radulosa.  Weighing nearly three kilograms, the book is almost too heavy to read comfortably unless it is placed on a table, and it would certainly not be a good field guide.  However, its physical presence gives the impression that it will outlive the purchaser.

And the content?  This is the finest botany/horticulture book I have read in a long time.  As most advertisements and descriptions indicate, the book’s main selling point is its botanical illustrations, which represent almost forty-five years of work by Barbara Jeppe and her daughter Leigh Voigt.  The book covers every single species in all of the amaryllid genera found in Southern Africa, a region encompassing both the summer- and winter-rainfall regions of South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, and Botswana.  Each full-color botanical illustration shows the bulb, foliage, flowers, and fruit.  A notation at the bottom of each illustration indicates its scale as a percentage of life-size, making it easy to determine the actual size of the flowers.  In my browsing of the book, I found only a couple of species illustrated with older paintings or lacking an illustration, because no living material was available to the artists.

All species, including those few with no illustration, have a detailed description written by Graham Duncan, the curator of the indigenous bulb collection at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.  In addition to a physical description, Duncan’s text includes a brief history of the species (including provenance of the illustrated plant), flowering period, distribution and habitat, conservation status, and cultivation notes.  This latter section will probably be of great interest to bulb enthusiasts and gardeners.  If, like me, you sometimes have trouble remembering which parts of South Africa receive winter rainfall and which months in the southern hemisphere correspond to our northern hemisphere growing season, you’ll be pleased to see that the cultivation instructions usually state exactly when a species should be watered in terms of season, not months of the year.

The various genera and species are presented in alphabetical order, making it easy to find a species of interest.  Each genus is introduced with a more general description that includes numerous color photographs, many of them showing plants in habitat. Introductory material at the front of the book includes sections on amaryllid biogeography and survival strategies.  These sections were particularly interesting to me, because I find that much of the fun of growing exotic plants lies in learning about their biology, evolution, and habitat.

The end of the book includes a key to all genera and species, a glossary, and a more detailed cultivation guide split into sections for growers in the northern and southern hemispheres.  The northern hemisphere guide includes helpful instructions for acclimatizing bulbs imported from South Africa, as well as lists of recommended species for cultivation outside.  These lists are, I think, the least useful aspect of the book for growers in North America.  The cultivation guide was clearly written with the United Kingdom in mind, and there is no obvious way to translate the “hardy” and “half-hardy” categories into USDA climate zones.  In some cases, the cultivation guide seems too conservative, stating that Nerine bowdenii is “the only fully hardy summer-rainfall amaryllid” and that Crinum bulbispermum is merely “frost-hardy.”  With these minor quibbles, though, I am still impressed by the cultivation guide and think that its information on propagation, pests and diseases, and potting media will be of great utility to North American growers.

For me, the biggest surprise in this book has been learning just how many absolutely gorgeous amaryllids there are that do not seem to be in cultivation in the United States.  Perhaps the list of seed and bulb suppliers at the end of the book will offer me the opportunity to test those instructions for acclimatizing imports.

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