Ixia viridiflora is a real head-turner. The first time you see it, you need to take a second look to convince yourself that its green flowers are not part of one of those fiendish artificial plants that exists only in the maker’s imagination. Nature produces few green flowers; none are as beautiful as those produced by this bulb.
The plant has long (18in) flower spikes that during May and June are covered with over a dozen gleaming turquoise-green flowers with a dark purple eye. It is a shimmering colour that the best plant photographers have difficulty in capturing and which even the great botanical painter Pierre Joseph Redouté failed to fully portray. Ixia viridiflora is truly one of those plants that you have to see for yourself.
Grown in Europe since the eighteenth century, there are about fifty species in the genus. They all have tough-looking strappy leaves and open flowers with a dark centre. Non are as showy (nor as tall) as Ixia viridiflora.
Despite the exuberance and vitality of its flowers, Ixia viridiflora has a bleak future. All Ixias originate from South Africa, specifically the southern part, and most commonly the south-western Cape. Plants (and animals too) are at great risk when endemic to such a small area: minor changes in environmental conditions can threaten their future; loss of even small amounts of necessary habitat can prove catastrophic.
Ixia viridiflora has disappeared completely from most of the areas where it was once found, being confined now to the lower slopes of mountains near Tulbagh. Even here its occurrence is in decline. If this pattern continues Ixia viridiflora could soon be extinct in the wild.
One possible reason for this is its unusual manner of pollination. In the wild the plant relies on the attention of a beetle, known locally as monkey beetle, to pollinate it. The beetle visits the flower to eat the pollen and hopefully passes some of the pollen to next flower. It is what botanists would call entomophilous – a big word to describe what is basically an inefficient method of pollination. Such seeds as do develop have no special dispersal system, so merely drop off next to the parent plant.
None of this adds up to a plant with a strong survival make-up. Gardeners can do little to help Ixia viridiflora in the wild but by growing it in our gardens we can play a part in ensuring its continued existence. And, in addition, we will be able to enjoy its strikingly beautiful flowers.
How to grow
In Britain Ixias are best grown in pots. Use a large container, at least 12 inches in diameter, and cover the bottom with plenty of crocs. Make up a mix of 40% potting compost, 50% horticultural grit and 10% coarse sand. The result may feel like much too gritty a mix but the bulb needs very good drainage. Don’t be tempted to add more compost otherwise your bulbs will rot. When shoots appear water sparingly but stop watering after flowering. Feed occasionally with a weak liquid feed during flowering. Leave the foliage to die down and keep the pot warm and dry. Do not water again until the following year.
Ixia viridiflora is easy to grow from seed. Sow the seed in deep pots or trays in Spring in a cold frame or greenhouse. The seed germinates very quickly and you should have flowering plants the following year.