2 minute read
14 Sep 2013
8:00 am

Sandersonia: the ant’s lantern

You know those magical paper lanterns with candles illuminating them that people let loose into the sky at weddings?

It’s a mesmerising procession to watch. It’s a similar view to what ants get to enjoy when looking up at the orange lantern-shaped blooms of Sandersonia, aptly known by its common name: “Chinese lantern”. Except that these flowers don’t disappear into thin air – they actually stay flowering for over a fortnight. Dangling on dainty stems, they’re a magnificent sight.

Unfortunately the rarity of this indigenous plant means that not too many ants (and humans) get to enjoy them in the wild, particularly due to agricultural expansion and indiscriminate picking in their original natural habitats of grassland and forest margins in the Eastern Cape, Swaziland and southern Mpumalanga. However, lucky hikers can still find this endangered species growing on the slopes of the Drakensberg Mountains, and home gardeners have the advantage of being able to plant them from seed or corm.

The fact that there’s only one species of Sandersonia in existence (Sandersonia aurantiaca) makes it even more unique. First identified on Field’s Hill near Durban and Swartkops Hill near Pie-termaritzburg by a Scottish journalist and amateur botanist, John Sanderson, in 1852, this plant was named after this honorary secretary of the KwaZulu-Natal Horticultural Society.

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Also known as “Christmas Bells”, Sandersonia’s come into bloom over the festive season, from December all the way through to March. Bulbs should be planted between August and October, in well-draining, well-aerated, slightly acidic soil – combine fine compost, river sand and vermiculite for ultimate results.

Plant the corm 5cm below the ground, spaced 10cm apart (it has swollen, jointed lobes and should be planted horizontally). Water immediately after planting, and then don’t water again until the first leaves appear, after which you should water once a week.

Sandersonia is not suited to overwatering as the bulbs are prone to fungal attacks.

This is also the perfect plant for pots, provided you insert a stake in the centre of the container that allows you to tie growing stems to it for support.