Our Plants

March 2007 Plant Highlight: Asphodelus aestivus
Image of A. aestivus   Image of A. aestivus flower

Family concepts in the botanical world have undergone much change in recent years, and no group has been re-arranged more than the Lily Family, or Liliaceae.  As formerly defined, this was a huge group including such diverse plants as lilies, hyacinths, asparagus, yuccas and aloes.  Although the basic structure of the flowers is very similar in each of these examples, we now place each one in a different family in keeping with the trend towards smaller and more cohesive family groupings.

Among the splinter families from the old Liliaceae is the Asphodelaceae, or Asphodel Family.  Included here are popular garden plants such as Kniphofia (Red-Hot Poker) and Bulbinella, as well as Aloe and its close kin.  Some would continue dividing and put the latter into a still smaller family – Aloeaceae – but at RBG, we are content to include them in the Asphodelaceae.

The Asphodelaceae takes its name from Asphodelus, a genus whose members have clumps of narrow tapering leaves and spires of flowers in the white-to-pink range.  Plants in this genus are found as far west as the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and as far east as India, but most occur in the Mediterranean region.  It should be noted that plants of the related genus Asphodeline are also commonly referred to as “Asphodel”.

Asphodelus aestivus occurs from the Canary Islands eastward through the Mediterranean basin.  The term “aestivus” refers to its summer dormancy, a trait common in the Mediterranean area, with its rainy winters and dry summers.  The plants have blue-green relatively narrow leaves which reach a length of about 2½ feet (75 cm).  The leaves are keeled on the underside and guttered on the upper surface, much like those of Red-Hot Pokers.  They arise from underground rhizomes, which branch to form clumps.  The flowers emerge early in the year (the flowering period is Feb.– Mar. at RBG), with the stalks rising to a height of 4 to 5 feet (about 1½ m) or more.  The stalks may be unbranched, but often they bear short side branches.  The flowers are about an inch or so long (2½ - 3 cm), and the spreading petals (tepals) are white with a narrow brown stripe running down the middle.

Text and Photos by Brian Kemble

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The mission of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Inc. is to preserve this exceptional example of garden design and to continue to develop its collection of water-conserving plants for the education and enjoyment of the public.
 
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