In my last post I mentioned our 2008 cycling trip in southern France. At the end of the trip we spent a day in Montpellier and visited the Montpellier Botanic Gardens (le Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier). One of the loveliest plants we found there was Tulbaghia violacea, the Society Garlic. Last summer I bought my own plant and it is growing in a pot on our sunny patio.
Tulbaghia violacea is a beautiful ornamental plant that grows from bulbs to form a clump of grey-green leaves with beautiful pale pink-mauve flowers, borne on long stems. It is a member of the Alliaceae (the garlic and onion family) and has edible leaves that smell and taste of garlic, like an Allium.
Tulbaghia violacea is a native of southern Africa, where it grows in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo regions, as far north as Zimbabwe. It is naturalised in Tanzania and Mexico. In its native lands, Tulbaghia violacea is probably pollinated by butterflies and bees, but other members of the genus have dull flowers that become sweetly scented at night, so are adapted for pollination by moths.
Tulbaghia flowers during the summer. In South Africa, this is from January to April but in the northern hemisphere the flowering period is June to September. It makes a very good pot plant for a warm, sunny patio and the plants are quite resistant to drought and not bothered by pests, with the possible exception of slugs and snails. It can be bought as a plant or – if you have the patience – grown from seed.
Tulbaghia does not like very cold winters. The USDA hardiness zone rating is 8 – 11. In the UK Tulbaghia violacea is classed as hardy to zone 7, which means that it should survive several degrees of frost, although the Gardeners’ World website suggests taking the plants indoors into a frost-free greenhouse in winter. I grow my Tulbaghia in a pot in peat-free compost with added grit and I overwinter it in an unheated greenhouse from late October until April. In winter its foliage dies back and I keep it fairly dry. (It is usually a combination of cold and wet that kills plants in a UK winter.) If you have well-drained soil, you should be able to grow the plant outside all year round, if you use a mulch to protect the crown from frosts.
Tulbaghia leaves, stems and flowers are edible and can be used in salads. The leaves taste hot but otherwise don’t have a very strong flavour. The Zulus use the leaves to make a hot, peppery seasoning for meat and potatoes and eat the leaves and flowers like spinach.
The bulbs have been used to treat pulmonary tuberculosis and to destroy intestinal worms and as an aphrodisiac. Fresh bulbs boiled in water are sometimes used as a cold remedy.
The leaves have antibacterial and antithrombic properties and may have an effect against cancer of the oesophagus. The crushed leaves are sometimes used to help cure sinus headaches or can be rubbed on the skin to repel fleas, ticks and mosquitoes. The smell of the plant may also discourage moles from the garden.
The genus Tulbaghia was named by Linnaeus after Ryk Tulbagh (1699 – 1771), the governor of the Dutch Cape Colony from 1751 to 1771. Tulbagh corresponded with several botanists, including Linnaeus, and sent them over 200 species of local plants. The specific name violacea means violet-coloured. As well as Society Garlic, Tulbaghia is sometimes called Pink Agapanthus, as it resembles Agapanthus when in flower and even likes similar growing conditions, although Agapanthus is a member of a different family, the Amaryllidaceae.
My Tulbaghia violacea is the variegated form ‘Silver Lace‘. It is very decorative, but I would probably have chosen the green-leaved form if it had been available. Here is my plant, on 1st August 2015, growing with Agapanthus (blue flower), Salvia darcyii (red flower), scented Pelargoniums and a patio pear tree.