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bowiea: of houseplants and youtube

bowieavolubilis1YOU KNOW HOW you can live with someone for a long time and know their habits—but not really know them? Such is the case with certain of my longtime houseplants, including the “climbing onion” or Bowiea volubilis. The shocker: I simply had no idea that bowiea has appeared on YouTube nearly 7,000 times. I knew that bowiea, which I’ve grown for a decade or more, was not an onion at all but a South African member of the Hyacinth Family (formerly thought to be in the Lily Family, but don’t get me started on all those endless taxonomic shifts).

Lovers of succulents and oddball plants in general grow bowiea with most of its showy, round green bulbs above the soil surface, and with its twining filigree of stem-like foliage trained up onto some kind of support. That’s how the plant in my dining room (shown) is growing right now. Probably neither is what happens in the wild, but no matter; let the foliage climb up something or let it dangle; bury the bulbs a lot or hardly at all.

Order a baby at Logee’s, or better yet order three and cluster them in one pot for company. Each bulb can reach 8 inches in diameter over time, and as for the foliage—there seem to be no end to it (until it simply stops).

What matters is that you give it bright light and gritty soil and respect bowiea’s desire to sleep all winter. Stop watering it when the tendrils start to turn yellow and dry up in fall, then water not at all or very rarely when it is sleeping. I usually give it a little drink perhaps once a month in winter out of disbelief that it can live without, but it’s not needed. Just remember to forget about it more than fuss and you’ll both be happy together, forever after.

Categorieshouseplants vines
  1. andrewoowoo says:

    The foliage looks a bit like that of the Asparagus Fern: Asparagus densiflorus. I love the cloud-like fluffiness of it.

    How much of an onion is it? Is there any sort of ‘onion odor’ to these? Is any part of it edible?

    As for YouTube, it’s amazing what you can find. Type in anything, from majolica to the aga range and you’ll find a video for it.

    -Andrew

  2. margaret says:

    No worry, Andrew–I just enjoy looking at the thing, and the miracle of how it goes to sleep on cue each year and wakes up again with almost total neglect.

  3. GardenGuy says:

    I do believe I’ll have to place an order for this plant! If I’m looking at the picture correctly the bulbs are huge! Quite spectacular.
    I’m sure you’ll agree Margaret that one of the joys of gardening is witnessing the “miracles” in the garden (or pot). It amazes me each and every spring when the hosta begin to emerge or when my peonies begin their stretch for the warmth of the spring sun. (I’m thrilled.. they are starting to come up!)

    I could talk gardening for hours on end…
    -Kenn

  4. margaret says:

    The bulbs can reach 8 inches across each, and are bright green with a tan papery covering that peels back to show the bulb off in varying degrees. When you order by mail you get a baby, but I think they are worth the wait.
    And yes, I am enjoying the miracles as the spring finally arrives here, too, peony soots among them. Bring it on!

  5. Elaine says:

    This looks like a fascinating plant. I am going to have to order some bulbs and see what happens, and I’ll have to check out YouTube and see what it looks like trailing down.

  6. virginiamorningstar says:

    What a cool plant, and what a cool blog! A question that I’m sure reveals me as a rank amateur . . . what’s “gritty soil?” Also a suggestion for a future topic . . . how about talking about grouping houseplants together in an arrangement, display, to best advantage? Sort of an indoor version of your underplanting idea feature. Just a thought!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Virginia. No, not a silly question at all; just means that it has grit in it, rather than being all peat moss or shredded bark (which is what’s in most “potting” soils, those two items. So with succulents and plants like this crazy thing, you add some of what looks like bird-cage or fish-tank gravel (but not colored!), formerly called “grit” when people actually mixed up their own potting mediums more.

      You can use chicken grit from the feed store, or if nothing else is available, sand (not from the beach, but the kind from the garden center called horticultural grade). The idea is to have a mix that drains fast so these guys don’t rot, not one that stays damp, and also to have a “soil” that’s supportive enough for such plants.

      Thank you for the story idea, and do please come again.

  7. bobbo the omnivore says:

    I inherited this plant from Mom who had it for 20 years. I have 4 bulbs in a 5 inch plastic container. All the soil appears to have washed out of the container as when watered, the water just runs right thru the pot into the catchment bowl. This is in my kitchen window North Facing in Sacramento. It never goes dormant, never flowers, has not put out babies. Just constantly putting out green shoots. They do turn brown but are putting out green shoots at the same time.

    An hour ago after pruning the growth as it had grown down to touch my sink, I gut off a handfull and threw it away. Then as I was cooking some soup, I decided to taste the green filligree. It was just like green onion, so I put a teaspoon of the stuff in my soup. No taste experience there, maybe it has to seep more?

    I’ve read now that the bulb itself is a cardiac poison.

    What about the green shoots? I don’t plan on eating it again until confirmed. Could it be like apple seeds or almonds? Everything in moderation?

    1. margaret says:

      All parts are POISONOUS, Bobbo, so don’t eat any of it ever! No telling how it would affect you, even the smallest amount, so beware! Enjoy it as the oddball “houseplant” it is.

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