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Bowiea volubilis, also known as the ‘climbing onion’, is not really a succulent at all, but it is a popular plant with many growers.

The large bulb, up to 150mm across in habitat, is covered with papery scales. Some growers prefer to remove these to show the bulb beneath which, when exposed to light, will become green.

 0819 Fig 1. B.volubilis

Fig. 1   Bowiea volubilis

The vine-like growth is actually a climbing inflorescence, which undertakes photosynthesis in place of leaves. In habitat the inflorescence may grow 3-4m long and will scramble over other vegetation or rocks etc. My plant, in cultivation in the UK, will start into growth in late spring and continue throughout the summer. Growth is usually preceded by the brief appearance of one or perhaps two small, linear true leaves, which last perhaps for a couple of days. Once the inflorescence gets underway growth is rapid, almost visible in fact. Small, greenish flowers are produced at intervals over the inflorescence as the summer progresses.

 0819 Fig 2 B.volubilis inflorescence

Fig. 2   Bowiea volubilis inflorescence and flower

It has a reputation for being easy to grow. I use a mix of John Innes with plenty of grit, and water while it is in growth. It seems happy in a semi-shaded position.

In habitat it grows in the eastern parts of South Africa and can also be found in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. It is widespread therefore, but considered at risk because of its use for medicinal and magical purposes. It is traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments and in addition it will make warriors brave, protect travellers and help your love-life. If you are thinking of trying it out however, do so with care, as it is also extremely toxic.

Sheila Cude

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