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Lachenalia is a genus of about 100 species of flowering plants in the hyacinth family, Hyacinthaceae. Commonly known as cape cowslip or leopard lilies, these flower bulbs are originally from southern Africa. They are adapted to regions that receive rains in the winter, but have dry summers. These types of plants grow well in warm, dry climates — like those in parts of Australia and the United States, such as southern California — or in cool greenhouses.
Several species of Lachenalia are commonly grown and have been hybridized. The bulbs have been grown in South Africa and Australia for many years, but have only become popular in the United States in the past several decades. One advantage of growing these plants is that they tend not to cause problems in those with allergies.
The bulbs are approximately 2 inches (5 cm) wide. They give rise to two to three tulip-shaped leaves. Stems that are 1 foot (0.3 m) tall produce 1 to 1½ inch (2.5-3.75 cm) tubular flowers. Each plant produces one flower stalk. The flowers come in a wide array of colors, and are frequently composed of several different colors.
Lachenalia bulbs propagate themselves by developing tiny bulbs referred to as bulbets. When these grow to be the size of a full bulb, they are referred to as offsets. These can be removed from the parent bulb and planted separately. It may take a few seasons for them to reach flowering size.
The bulbs should be planted 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5 cm) deep. If planted in the garden, they must be spaced between 3 and 5 inches (7.5 and 12.5 cm) apart. In pots, six flower bulbs should be planted in a five-inch (12.5 cm) pot.
Cape cowslip should be grown in full sun, except in the hottest climates. When planted in the garden in a wet-winter-dry-summer area, the bulbs should be planted late in the summer or early in the fall for flowers from December through March. The bulbs should only receive minimal amounts of water until the foliage appears. Then they should be kept moist until the leaves yellow. The soil should be allowed to dry out, and the bulbs kept dry, until the next planting season.
In much of the world, Lachenalia is grown in cool greenhouses. The bulbs can also be grown as houseplants. They prefer a cool night temperature, however, of at most 50°F (10°C). The newly planted bulbs should be kept in a cool, dark place until foliage appears. As with the garden bulbs, potted cowslips should be kept dry after they have finished blooming, until they are brought into flower again.
In Australia, the species Lachenalia reflexa — known as yellow soldiers — has become a weed. It has taken over regions of the bush country. There are systematic attempts to eradicate it and restore the native vegetation. In rural southern Africa, the sale of Lachenalia bulbs has become a primary source of employment for at least one town.