Albuca spiralis (2016)

PhotoBy Bob Williams (August 2016)

The favorite pastime of all the people attending the Mid-States Cactus and Succulent Conference was browsing through the sales area. Everyone was looking for that one plant that was calling their name. Most of us had several plants shouting for a look their way, with many finding new homes.

On Saturday, a cute little bulb shouted loud and long in my direction and twisted my arm just enough to make me buy it. Albuca spiralis is that bulb now sitting in my windowsill.

There are more than 100 species (all bulbs) within the genus Albuca, which is in the Hyacinthaceae family. The majority of the species are found in South Africa along the western coast northward into Namaqualand.

A. spiralis is found in this range, too. It can be found at sea level to over 6,000 feet above sea level. It grows in seasonally dry grasslands, open woodlands and scrublands – areas one would not normally expect. The growth is sparse, and the areas are comprised of gravel to rocks. These areas are also very hot and dry.

The thing that makes A. spiralis so interesting is its leaves. They curl like little corkscrews. This feature creates a sort of air conditioning, because the leaves don’t all face the sun and therefore don’t get as hot. Plus, the curl of the leaves allows air to circulate through. The more sun the plant gets, the tighter the corkscrews are. Low light conditions may produce less twisting in the leaves.

Even though the plant I bought has growing leaves and is sending out new leaves as I type this, A. spiralis is a winter grower. In my research, many articles say it is normal for leaf growth to occur in the summertime. Normally, the leaves fall off in late spring after flowering. In spring, it produces numerous yellow-green flowers that are said to smell of butter and vanilla.

A. spiralis needs well-draining soil. Adding a little extra-coarse sand or gravel to your mix will help. Watering should be very limited in the summer. If you put this plant outside, place it in an area that gets lots of sun but is protected from getting a lot of water. Regular watering can resume when the nights start getting cooler.

The bulbs tend to remain small. In the wild, the bulbs grow to a maximum of 2 inches in diameter. In cultivation, the bulbs can reach 4 to 5 inches in diameter.

Propagation can be by seed or by removing “bulblets” that offset from the main bulb. Growing from seed can be tricky, because the seeds are viable for a very short time, less than six months.