Friday, September 24, 2010

About Ixia

The genus, Ixia (pronounced IKS-ee-uh), includes about fifty species. Ixia is native to the western and southern parts of South Africa.  The genus was discovered and named during the late 1700s, though Linnaeus originally classified it as Gladiolus.  It's easy to understand why he did because the similarity is strong.  Among their most obvious shared characteristics are corms, sword-like foliage and flower arrangement on the stems.  Ixia and Gladiolus are members of the Iridaceae family (Iris).

But Ixia wasn't called Gladiolus for long.  Of course, names are given to plants for good reasons.  Sometimes names are bestowed to honor a notable person or to describe some characteristics of the plant, for example.  The name, Ixia, may have seemed all too obvious to Linneaus, but now after about 240 years no one actually knows why he named it so.  It is undoubtedly a latinized form derived from some Greek word.  Could it be from ixos, referring to its sticky sap that reminded Linnaeus of bird-lime?  Bird-lime is a viscous substance that is spread on tree branches to trap delicious birds.

South African botanist Gwendoline Joyce Lewis opined that the name was derived from the Greek word, ixia, which referred to a "chameleon plant" so called for its variable flower colors.  Her theory, apparently, was that Linnaeus thought of the changeable characteristics of chameleons, so he gave the name to this new African genus because of the variable colors between its species.  (To confirm this, I can't find the actual paper she wrote, though it is often referenced in articles on Ixia.)  As it turns out, some of the plants formerly considered to be ixias have since been classified into other genera, so now, the genus is not so variable any more.

But there is one commonly called "chameleon plant" because its flowers are long like chameleon's tongues, and its seeds are sticky like chameleon's tongues.  It is a mistletoe, Loranthus.  As a matter of fact, Italians used to make bird-lime of mistletoe berries, oil and turpentine.  So, then, Linnaeus may have been thinking of bird-lime, after all, and of the mistletoes that went into it.

Is that confusing, or what?  Either way, the name doesn't pretend to describe the beauty of this showy flower.

Why should all that etymology and plant taxonomy matter to us?  Well, because we're gardeners!

Ixia, also known as African Corn Lily, produces star-shaped flowers in a rainbow of various colors on 18" long wiry stems in mid-spring.  The species hybridize easily, so new forms may appear.  The strap-live leaves are quite handsome.  You can plant them in spring anywhere in the garden or in containers.  Cut flowers are long-lasting.  Fragrance is pleasant but discrete, sort of like the vegetable flowers in your garden.  Ixia is ideal for bee and butterfly gardens.

Ixia is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 9 and 10, but the corms are so inexpensive that gardeners in colder zones treat them as annuals. Plant ixia corms 3" to 6" apart and about 6" deep in full sun to partial shade in average, well-drained garden soil.  Ideal pH ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.  Though somewhat drought tolerant during summer months, they benefit from moist soil during the growing season. Leafy mulch is ideal.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 12" deep.

Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  A fine all-around practice for spring-flowering bulbs is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Repeat the application when shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Planted liberally, Ixia will make a wonderful show in your spring garden.  The flowers are fine for cutting and arrangements, too.  You'll be glad you tried this beautiful South African native.

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