Cameron & Rhoda McMaster's

Dierama grandiflorum

Dierama is a relatively small genus of bulbous plants belonging to the Iridaceae, the iris family.   In their revision of the genus Hilliard and Burt (1991) listed 44 species of which the majority occur in South Africa, but the
geographical range of the genus runs much further north with several species occurring at relatively high altitude in tropical East Africa, in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique with one species in Ethiopia.  They are collectively known as Hairbells, because of the fine hairlike stems from which the flowers hang. Several other common names in South Africa are Fairy-Bell, Grassy-Bell (Grasklokkie), Wedding-Bell and Flowering Grass. In the British Isles they are sometimes called Wand Flowers or more frequently, and romantically, 'Angel's Fishing Rods or Venus's Fishing Rods'.

Being evergreen, they are adapted to summer rainfall and thus to the eastern and northern parts of South Africa, their westerly range terminating at Knysna.  In the Eastern Cape and Natal they may be found from just above sea level to  the top of the Drakensberg escarpment, but in the tropics Dierama is largely montane.    Despite its wide distribution, Dierama is restricted to a single major habitat - moist grassland.

Gary Dunlop, a grower and collector of dieramas in Northern Ireland,  in a comprehensive survey of the genus described them as follows:  "From tufts of evergreen grass-like foliage, slender wiry stems emerge, from which clusters of bell shaped flowers dangle on even finer thread-like short lateral shoots.
As the flowers develop, their increasing weight causes the main stem to bend like a fishing rod under strain. When the seeds develop, in spherical capsules, the extra weight can cause the stems of some plants to gracefully bend much more and in some cases make a parabola shape with the tip touching or almost touching the ground.

When in flower, the slightest breath of wind causes the stems to sway gently; their graceful movement giving an extra dimension to their beauty. Even after the flowers have fallen and before the seed capsules develop, the bracts from which the flowers emerge, which are usually silvery or brown, give the appearance of a tall elegant grass in flower, especially when the plants have formed reasonable clumps."

Dierama grandiflorum is the most distinct and rare member of the genus, with conspicuous, large and widely opening pink flowers.  It was discovered by a Mrs. Harries in the Bosberg mountain near Somerset East. It was established as a species, and aptly named Dierama grandiflorum in 1934 by Miss  Gwendoline JoyceLewis, who made the South African Iridaceae her specialty.  It is one of those rare flowers that most of us only dream about and few have seen in flower in its natural habitat.   It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and spectacular of the many Hairbell species we have in South Africa and truly deserves its name - Dierama grandiflorum, a very grand flower. They undoubtedly have the largest flowers in the genus - flowers that flare in a wide trumpet with a distinctive twist at the tip of the tepals.   

According to the literature it occurs in only two disjunct populations - one on the Bosberg mountain above Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, and the other some 100 km further west on the Oudeberg north of  Graaff Reinet (The Hairbells of Africa by OM Hilliard and BL Burt, 1991)  Why it has only been recorded at these sites is a good question - I am sure there must be populations in suitable mountain habitats on the ranges between Somerset East and Graaff Reinet but they have just not been seen or recorded yet.  It occurs on the Bosberg in small localised populations at various places on the high grassy slopes at altitudes of 1300 to 1400m often in rocky and stony areas. 

One population occurs on the farm Glen Avon belonging to Bill and Alison Brown, and it was a specimen from the Glen Avon population that Dr. Auriol Batten painted for the illustration in the Dierama book " The Hairbells of Africa", for which she painted 36 exquisite full-page water-colours.  Auriol recalls that when she was taken up the mountain by Bill Brown on 3 November 1987 to obtain material to illustrate the book, there were only 20 plants in flower.  She took photographs and made sketches for the most beautiful illustration on page 81 of the book.   A lovely pencil drawing on the opposite page very clearly illustrates the habitat in which the plant grows. 

The population I am most familiar with occurs on the farm Waainek in the grassland  just above the spectacular forest-clad Glen Avon Valley near to the famous Glen Avon waterfall. I have visited this population periodically over a number of years, but previously never at the height of its flowering, which is November.   On one occasion during a December visit I was able to photograph one lone late flower at the end of the tall spike.  So last year when an opportunity arose to visit the area in early November, I was able for the first time to admire it in its full glory and take photographs.

The farm Waainek belongs to Philip Erasmus whom I have known for many years.  Because there are a number of local endemics  that occur here  including Haemanthus carneus and Kniphofia acraea, Philip, at my urging,  very obligingly established a wild flower reserve here.  It is kept free of livestock and is grazed only by the occasional Bushbuck.  Because fire is an important element in grassland ecology, it is burned at strategic intervals in order to preserve and maintain  it in top condition. Regrettably, the Dierama grandiflorum population, as well as a population of  the spectacular orchid, Disa lugens, occur just outside the boundaries of the reserve and are subject to regular grazing by sheep and cattle.  The grazing pressure has had a negative effect over the years and the older plants that have died off are not being replaced by enough younger plants to sustain the population.  The younger plants and seedling are the most vulnerable to grazing, as well as to the depredation of porcupines who love to dig up and eat the corms.  The reserve needs to be extended to include the Hairbells - a possibility, since Philip is one of those
enlightened land owners who realise that they are only temporary custodians of a fragile ecosystem that has been millions of years in developing and that he has an enormous responsibility to preserve it in as pristine a state as possible for future generations. 

I visited the Waainek population again on 12 November 2006.  It was
disappointing to find only eight mature plants in flower, but the spectacular beauty of the flowers more than made up for their scarcity.  Some of the
mature clumps were very large with tall slender spikes up to 2m in length with clusters of large pink flowers dangling and waving in the breeze.  While there are juvenile plants in the area, it is clear that the population is declining due to periodic grazing by sheep and cattle and depredation of the corms by porcupines. The area will need to  be better conserved to facilitate reproduction and growth of the younger plants.  The population needs to expand to be able to survive and thrive.   

The Waainek Wild Flower Reserve overlooks the Glen Avon Valley with its spectacular red sandstone cliffs and waterfall.  It is worth a visit at almost any time during the spring and summer.  There is a wide variety of flowering
species - Brunsvigia grandiflora, Haemanthus carneus, Cyrtanthus macowanii, Gladiolus oppositiflorus, Kniphofia acraea and Eucomis autumnalis being some of the specials.  There is also a very large  multi-headed female specimen of the rare Cycad, Encephalartos cycadifolius.  On our last visit we even discovered a small population of the tiny and but very lovely Lachenalia campanulata. The thick patch of Afro-montane forest below the grassland in the reserve has a wide variety of trees, ferns and epiphytes. The croaking of Knysna loeries is a common sound.

Gary Dunlop who is an experienced grower of Dieramas in Northern Ireland gives the following cultivation advice: "Dierama come from areas of summer rainfall. That means that they like moisture in the growing season, particularly in mid-summer when they flower, but are mostly used to dry conditions in winter. Dierama corms resent waterlogged conditions in winter so they will not grow well in heavy or clay soils. They will grow quite satisfactorily in light free draining soils, but which do not dry out in summer. Dierama do not seem to be particular as to the ph of the soil, they are tolerant of an alkaline soil though a neutral to acid soil is likely to suit them best, particularly as some species occur naturally in peaty areas in the wild  They do not need a rich soil but will respond to a little feeding, periodically. However, it is more important to periodically re-invigorate clumps of corms by digging them up, splitting them, removing the old dead basal corms. The corm should then be replanted between 50-100mm deep, depending on the size of the corm, and 50mm or more apart to allow for each corm to clump up, without over-crowding its neighbours. Dieramas are easily grown from seed and can flower within three to four years from seed."

Those wishing to visit the Waainek Wild Flower Reserve reserve should contact Philip Erasmus (Tel. 042 2433561 or 083 2742870 for permission.  They can be accommodated overnight in a large rambling farmhouse at Glen Craig. This is self-catering accommodation and visitors can go on a number of marked hiking trials encompassing various facets of  Montane Grassland and Valley hicket.  Bed and Breakfast accommodation is available just below the mountain at the historic farm, Glen Avon, owned by Bill and Alison Brown
Tel: 042 2433628 or 082 5983379.

You can view these plants in their wild habitats
by joining a botanical tour offered by African Bulbs