The Empress and her Lily

Brunsvigia josephinae This time every year I watch and wait for the first stirrings from my Brunsvigia josephinae. Since dropping their shriveled leaves in late spring they have lain doggo over the heat of summer waiting for the first signs of autumn. These African veldt dwellers have very large bulbs lying at ground level and when dormant resemble a clutch of fossilized dinosaur eggs. A recent visitor had a more prosaic, if not decidedly local take on my plantings, declaring them a strong likeness to an ancient burial ground for old Aussie Rules footballs. Mind you I think he is right about burials. It took a crowbar, an axe and a shovel to prise out my very first bulb from my grandfather's garden.

When those limpid days of early autumn arrive, as if on cue, life begins to stir within the depths of those massive, dry, papery mounds. Within a trice a decidedly phallic-like, golden stem erupts from out of the great fleshy barrel of a bulb. Both stem and flower bud continue to extend and as the stem reaches its maximum height the bud breaks open and the individual pedicle of each floret begin to lengthen and open out like the spokes of an umbrella. These floret buds begin to swell, turning from light green to pink, and when their pedicles have reached their maximum length and turn upwards, they bursts forth into a gloriously surreal candelabrum of lipstick-red single flower heads.

Bud Erupting Bud Ascenting Bud Elongating  

Brunsvigias are renowned for their long lasting and spectacular floral displays. Mature bulbs will produce as many as 40 widely spreading, trumpet-shaped florets and these are held for many weeks. In their native homeland they are pollinated by nectar-feeding birds and this has also been observed in exotic locations like southern USA where hummingbirds fulfill that role. I have not seen Australian birds feeding on my plants although honeyeaters and wattlebirds are frequent visitors here. Perhaps they have the wrong shaped beaks? Or maybe their beaks are not long enough to reach the nectar stored within the throat of the flower. One brunsvigia species, B. littoralis, is now in danger of extinction because it has evolved to rely on a tiny range of bird species with sufficiently long enough beaks to pollinate its flowers. These bird species have been driven out of the plant's native range by human activity and have left it literally stranded. Perhaps this is a salutatory lesson for our own self-preoccupied species?Pedicles Unfurling

My grandmother told me that when she was a girl the flower heads of brunsvigias were cut and brought inside the house to be used as fly traps. Apparently the sticky surface of the flower's stigma, which is there to capture pollen, was equally effective at catching flies. It certainly gives an interesting twist to the saying, "came to a sticky end", although I prefer the less well known adage, "drowning in honey".  A thoroughly more pleasant use was to paint the dried flower heads gold and hang them from the ceiling as decorations on festive occasions. Maybe that's one of the reasons why brunsvigias are called Candelabra Lilies? In fact, they are known by a number of common names, including Umbrella Lily, Chandelier Lily, and in Africaans, by the rather ubiquitous, Maartblom, or March Flower.

Brunsvigia josephinae, has an intriguing story surrounding its name. It was given in honour of the Empress Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's consort, and the species is still commonly referred to as Josephine's Lily. During her lifetime the Empress developed a perchance, some would say an obsession, for the rare and exotic, not for jewelry or other fineries, but for plants and animals. Her passion was brought to its apogee in the gardens of the Chateau de Malmaison, a rundown old estate on the outskirts of Paris that she had bought against her husband's wishes. Napoleon was once reported to have said that the one thing that came between him and his wife was her extraordinary ability to run up debts.Almost There!

 At the height of her days there Josephine had amassed the largest and most important collection of roses in Europe and was importing rare plants from the far corners of the world. Even the Napoleonic Wars could not curtail her enthusiasms and it is said that none other than Sir Joseph Banks arranged for the safe passage of plants from Kew Gardens through the British naval blockade. Over 200 species grown at Malmaison were the only plantings in France at that time, and among them was, Brunsvigia josephinae, which bloomed there for the very first time in Europe in 1805. The record of this event can be seen in the painting by the French botanical artist, Pierre Joseph Redouté, who had been commissioned by the Empress to produce the studies for the work on monocotyledons growing at Malmaison, called, Les liliacées. This was one of a number of monumental works that she underwrote involving 486 paintings and 18 engravers over 14 years to complete.

And what should we make of the Empress Josephine? Was she a privileged and spoilt woman who squandered vast sums of her citizenry's money just to indulge her obsession? After her divorce from Napoleon she remained at Malmaison until her death and received an annual stipend of 5 million francs. Or was she a visionary and generous benefactor of the Gardening Arts? She left behind a rich palette from which rose breeders still draw upon today, as well as glorious legacy of botanical art that not only informs history but also stands alone as a priceless creative achievement. It is difficult to pass such judgments on historical figures for they are all creatures of their time. But personally I find that I am hopelessly drawn towards such magnificent acts of folly, not only for their sheer improbability but for their unswerving single-mindedness and for the glorious arc of their vision.

Recently I have taken to calling my largest and oldest brusvigia bulb, the Empress Josephine, and I talk to her often about her health and her beauty . . . and her breeding . . . for she certainly has the bearing and the presence of one so named. And as I write these words, she's out in the garden holding court, and carrying her magnificent candelabrum like a regal crown of flames.


Hi Marcus, I also have brunsvigia that I grow in large pots. They bake in summer, against a west facing wall. No care, no water until the action starts. I must have had them for about 20 years - got them from my mother, on King Island, who originally got them from a neighbour. I love them and they are also stunning at the moment. Regards, Dorothy

Hi Dorothy,

Good to hear how other people grow them. I think they are one of the toughest plants I have but I do find that if they get shaded or out muscled by their neighbours they won't flower. Of course for those buying young plants there is a long wait till flowering starts but I find they flower without fail once they reach that point.

Cheers, Marcus

Hi Marcus, Have just sent your blog off to Anita Barley at Kew as I am sure she will want to read about Josephine! Do you have eastern spinebills visiting you garden as they are the birds most closely related to the humming birds and I reckon that they may have the right shaped bill for feeding on the Brunsvigia flowers Additionally, how about B. bosmaniae. Isn't that one amazing! Huzza Cathy

Hi Cathy,

I am sure Kew know the stories. But what fascinating ones! There is so much more I would have liked to have written about her and Napoleon but it was getting off message as they say.

Funny thing with Eastern Spinebills. I only see them in my garden in the winter and spring. Maybe in summer and autumn there are rich pickings elsewhere? They are such beautiful little birds and last year I saw for the first time a Yellow-rumped Thornbill which is widespread in South Eastern Australia but uncommon here.

I would love my B. bosmaniae to flower - that pink! But up until now no show. Fingers crossed!

Cheers, Marcus

Thoroughly enjoyed your article about Josephine's lily and was intrigue by your grandmother's use of the cut flowers as fly traps.Last year, right at blooming time, we had a huge autumnal storm brewing. Not wanting my 5 lovely stems of Josephine's lily to be flattened, I decided to pick them to be enjoyed inside. On awakening the following morning, we were horrified by the truly dreadful smell wafting all through the house.......yes, the lilies! I'm not at all surprised that they attract flies, but outside I wasn't even aware of the smell.

Hi Robin,

Thats interesting how we often don't pick up the scent of some plants until we bring them into the house. My worst experience has been with Biarum tenuifolium, which I sold on my catalogue once. The harvested bulbs were put in the packing shed and forgotten about and a week later I opened the door and was almost knocked down by the stench! Over that period they all had flowered and you would swear I had a body buried in there. Even some lilies, lancifolium and pyrenaicea spring to mind, have rather nasty scents.

Cheers, Marcus

Dear Marcus, Thank you very much for my order which arrived a week or so ago ... looking forward very much to see the little treasures in flower. I did enjoy your article about Josephine, a friend had one flower for the first time last year ... such excitement! I have printed out a copy of your article for her, I'm sure she'll be very pleased to read it. It is distressingly dry here ... no water for the garden now ... so we hope and pray for rain ... We look forward to what you have for us next season ... keep fit! ... Bye for now, Jean W.

Hi Jean,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Good to know the bulbs have arrived and like you I hope for some rain. I hope your friend might look at her plant a little differently now she has some background. I love the legacy we have been left from our forebears. It makes the world a much richer place. I really hate the silly, tizzy names commercial plants get called these days, never a mention of its botanical name anywhere, as if we consumers are all 12 year olds.

Cheers, Marcus

PS Having said that about commercial names I guess I must declare some involvement in that industry. I currently have a BEAUTIFUL origanum out in the mass market but its name is pretty and melifluous. Look out for it, its called Origanum "Bellissimo"

Hello the Marcus! Very interesting post. Josephine must have been one of the great heroines of horticulture ... I have a few bulbs of her "lily", but they have not flowered as yet. Although they are supposed to be quite common in cultivation here in South Australia, I have never seen a flower! At the moment the queen of my garden is Amaryllis belladonna 'Harthor', with seven huge scapes of golden-centred white flowers which are surrounded by a court of scarlet-flowered Haemanthus coccinea. Some potted golden Sternbergia lutea offset the others. Other autumnal highlights are the first Cyclamen graecum of the season, a huge plant with hundreds of pink flowers, and a potful of Rhodophiala bifida. Now I'm impatiently waiting for all the other fall wonders. Incidentally, I have never managed to get a flower from my small collection of Lycoris, any suggestions? All the best, Don.

Hi Don,

Thanks for your comment and your support. Josephine was quoted thus "I wish that Malmaison may soon become the source of riches for all [of France]"... but I don't know how keen she might have been if this had been taken up by the masses. Anyway, I think she did a lot better than many others of her priviliged cohort. I did wonder whether she had found a certain solace in the garden to bolster her forebearance. Afterall she had been more or less cast aside. But then I found that Napoleon also enjoyed it there. In fact he returned to Malmaison after his defeat at Waterloo and spent the last year of his freedom at the chateau before being exiled to St Helena.

I think that Brunsvigia josephinae must have been brought to Australia from Africa (maybe via India) by the British aristocracy and officer class during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Sounds like your garden is ablaze . . . Hathor is a beauty but I have no tips for lycoris. Did you know that in many places around the world Nerine sarniensis proves very difficult to flower? It's because they are very positively sensitive to a sharply descending temperature regime preceding and during flowering. Maybe lycoris have a similar sensitivity but to a different regime. Ask Fermi de Sousa, he seems to know a thing or two about flowering them.

Cheers, Marcus