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How to Care for a Watsonia Plant!

Amazing image of bright pink watsonia flowers in the sun

Genus Watsonia

The genus watsonia is home to over 50 different species of flowering plants that are part of the iris botanical family (iridaceae) making them very close relatives to lilies, hence their common name: the bugle lily!

This plant family is loved by gardeners for their hardy underground corms, their gorgeous, tropical looking flowers, and their ability to attract all sorts of beneficial insects and animals to the area.

The bugle lily will very often be planted along herbaceous borders, in rockeries and window baskets, and they will be super happy in containers and pots. Bugle lilies also make for very happy indoor plants. Read on to learn all you need to know about planting watsonia!

What do Watsonia Plants Look Like?

Gorgeous blooming orange watsonia flower in a fynbos habitat

Growth Habit

Starting underneath the surface of the earth, watsonia plants grow from corms. A corm is basically a modified root (very similar to bulbs or rhizomes) that acts as a storage container for all of the necessary nutrients and moisture to keep a plant happy and healthy.

From a corm will grow tall and erect flowering stems that are rather branching. A stem will usually grow to be anywhere from 12 to 18 inches tall, though some varieties can grow to be over 3 feet tall!

Watsonias are a perennial plant type, meaning that the plant will continue to produce flower blossoms each year as long as its ideal growing conditions are met and maintained.

Leaves

Watsonia plants, depending on the species, will bear either deciduous or evergreen foliage. Deciduous species will have leaves that change color and fall away, whereas evergreen species will maintain their leaves all year round.

Watsonia leaves are very commonly lance shaped, or more casually known as sword shaped leaves. Each leaf is long and narrow and can grow to be over a foot tall each.

Flowers

Watsonia flowers do wonders for the garden. These showy flowers are very brightly colored, they smell lovely, and they will attract all sorts of pollinators to your garden.

Watsonia flowers will commonly bloom in the mid summer and last into the late summer, early fall or autumn. Though they don’t last very long, their impact is still striking.

Each watsonia flower is tubular in shape and each inflorescence will hold anywhere between 8 to 25 flowers. A flower can be a variety of colors, from orange, red, pink, coral, yellow, or white.

What are some Notable Watsonia Species?

Gorgeous focus image on bright orange bugle lily growing in the garden

Cape Bugle Lily (Watsonia Borbonica)

Also known as the pink watsonia, the cape bugle lily is a cormous perennial plant that is commonly planted along garden borders and in containers.

Watsonia borbonica can be identified by its upright fans of lance-shaped leaves accompanied by dark pink flowers that bloom in the late spring through to the early summer. The plant will grow to be 12 inches tall.

Bulbil Bugle Lily (Watsonia Meriana var Bulbillifera)

The bulbil bugle lily is also known as the wild watsonia, and this is a very common wildflower found all throughout Southern Africa and New Zealand.

Watsonia meriana var bulbillifera can be identified but its height of 12 inches, lance shaped leaves, and inflorescences comprised of 25 orange flowers or red flowers that toward above erect stems.

South African Bugle Lily (Watsonia Fourcadei JWMathews)

Watsonia fourcadei JWMathews can be identified by its 12-24 inch sword shaped leaves accompanied by inflorescences comprised of 40 tubular flowers of pink orange or red that bloom in the late spring.

Wilma Watsonia (Watsonia Wilmaniae JWMathews)

Watsonia wilmaniae JWMathews is a perennial herb that can be identified by its dark pink flowers or peach flowers that bloom in the mid summer, accompanied by upright branches covered in slender flowers.

Table Mountain Watsonia (Watsonia Tabularis JWMathews)

The table mountain watsonia is a very common garden cultivar that is commonly planted on herbaceous borders, in rockers, in water gardens, and in large containers.

Watsonia tabularis JWMathews is an evergreen perennial that can be identified by its deep green leaves accompanied by bright pink flowers that bloom in the late spring.

Beatrice Watsonia (Watsonia Pillansii)

The Beatrice watsonia is known as being a robust cormous perennial that makes for a great cut flower specimen, it’s often planted in mass displays and even helps with soil erosion issues!

Watsonia pillansii is a perennial herb that can be identified by its tall bright green, sword shaped leaves accompanied by erect stems that hold bright orange flowers that bloom in the middle of summer.

Where is Watsonia a Native Plant?

Gorgeous bright pink watsonia blooming in the western cape mountains

One of the biggest favors that you can do for yourself as a gardener is learning where a certain species is considered as a native plant. This way you can attempt to mimic those exact conditions in order to keep your plants as happy as possible.

The genus watsonia is native to South Africa (specifically in the Western Cape) and New Zealand. When growing wild they can be found grow in a fynbos scrubland, and in moist areas like beside rivers, in wetlands, and by coasts.

Unfortunately for a lot of gardeners, watsonia plants can only grow outdoors all year long in USDA growing zone 8. Growing watsonia outside of those zones means that the corms will have to be dug up and brought indoors during the cold months, then planted again in the spring.

What are the Ideal Growing Conditions of Watsonia Plants?

Another reason why gardeners love growing watsonia plants so much is that fact that their maintenance is very minimal. Caring for a watsonia patch can easily be incorporated into your regular gardening routine. Just follow these simple tips and tricks!

Macro image of blooming bright orange watsonia flowers

Soil Type

Watsonia plants can tolerate a great variety of soil types, but there are a couple of characteristics that the soil can have to make sure your plant is as happy as possible.

Ideally, the soil should be well draining and moderately fertile. An easy way to accomplish both of these things is by incorporating sand and compost to the potting mix.

Compost will increase the nutrient level of the soil while at the same time increasing drainage, and sand will help improve drainage without making the soil too nutrient rich.

Water Level

Watsonia plants require moderate levels of water. Though they are slightly drought tolerant, they tend to perform far better if they receive consistent moisture.

Since they grow from underground corms, it is also important that they don’t receive too much water as corms are sensitive to being in waterlogged soils.

The best rule of thumb is to simply let the soil dry out completely between waterings before watering again. It’s always better to under water than to over water.

Sun Exposure

One thing that watsonia plants are rather specific about is the amount of sun exposure that they receive. These are sun loving plants and should receiving a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Though they are able to tolerate partial shade, if they are planted in an area with too much shade, there’s a chance the the flowers won’t bloom as enthusiastically as they would in full sun.

Amazing scene on south African hilltop with growing watsonia plant

Temperature

Something very important to remember about watsonia plants is that they do not like cold. They are not tolerant to frost nor winter temperatures.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t plant one. If you live in a zone outside of USDA growing zone 8, you’ll simply have to dig up your watsonia corms and store them in a dry and dark place over the winter.

If you live just outside zone 8, you also have the option of covering the top soil with a thick layer of mulch. This will help protect the corms from low temperatures. Just remove the mulch once the green leaves start sprouting through.

Fertilizer

Watsonias aren’t super heavy feeders, so they won’t need much in way fertilizer other than compost. Just incorporate some organic matter into the top 6 inches of soil at the beginning of the growing season to keep the plants blooming!

Pruning

One significant part of watsonia care is pruning. One could decide to deadhead the spent flower heads in order to encourage a second blooming period.

Additionally, it’s important to leave the green leaves on the plant even after the flowers have perished. This is because the photosynthesizing leaves will continue to harvest energy for the plant to successfully go dormant.

How do you Propagate a Watsonia Plant?

Wild growing orange watsonia flower in the forest

Now for the final step on your watsonia learning journey: propagating a specimen of your very own! The easiest way to do this is by planting watsonia corms or dividing existing corms. Follow these simple steps to get started:

1. Dividing watsonia corms every few years is necessary for the plant’s health, so see if you can find a fellow gardener who is in the process of doing that. Make sure to get a healthy looking clump. Otherwise, you can easily find some at a nursery or online.

2. You can decide to plant the corms either in the late fall so that they get established over the winter (this can only happen in warm climates) or in the early spring.

3. Pick a spot on your property that receives full sun exposure and in soil that has been amended with compost.

4. Dig holes that are about 12 inches apart from one another and at least 4-5 inches deep. Place the corm in each hole and fill it entirely. Tamp down the soil.

5. Water deeply initially and maintain soil moisture as the plants are getting established.

And there you have it! Watsonia plants are wonderfully easy to care for and wonderfully easy to introduce as well. It just takes a little bit of patience and a lot of dirt under the fingernails. Hopefully you’ve officially decided to add watsonias to your spring plant list.

Focus image on bright pink watsonia flowers in a green garden

FAQs

Are watsonia plants deer resistant?

Watsonia plants are known as being somewhat deer resistant. This means that though they aren’t the very first choice of snack for larger pests like deer, rabbits, and squirrels, they are also not the last.

How are watsonia plants used?

Watsonia plants are a very popular ornamental plant. Thanks to those long erect stems and showy flowers that smell nice, they also make for a great cut flower specimen. Gardeners will often plant them in rockeries, along herbaceous borders, and in containers as well.

What are the damaging agents to watsonia plants?

The greatest damage that can occur to watsonia plants is being over watered. Their underground corms are very sensitive to living in waterlogged soils. This can very quickly cause root rot.

Can watsonia plants survive winter temperatures?

Something very important to remember about watsonia plants is that they do not like cold. They are not tolerant to frost nor winter temperatures.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t plant one. If you live in a zone outside of USDA growing zone 8, you’ll simply have to dig up your watsonia corms and store them in a dry and dark place over the winter.

If you live just outside zone 8, you also have the option of covering the top soil with a thick layer of mulch. This will help protect the corms from low temperatures. Just remove the mulch once the green leaves start sprouting through.

Are watsonia plants evergreen or deciduous?

Some watsonia species are evergreen and others are deciduous. This means that they will either bear foliage that will eventually change color and fall away as the cold weather approaches, or persist and stay green on the plant all year round.

Can a watsonia plant be grown indoors?

Watsonia plants can be grown indoors though it isn’t the most common choice. They are a very impactful outdoor plant to choose for their erect stems and bright flowers that are perfect for the garden.

Does watsonia grow from bulbs?

Many people think that it’s a watsonia bulb, when it’s actually a watsonia corm! This is a very similar type of modified root system. They also grow from seed but this can be a very time consuming process.

Can a watsonia plant be grown in a container?

Watsonia plants grow great in containers and it’s actually a great way to ensure that they’re ideal growing conditions are met and maintained.

Are watsonia plants perennials?

Watsonia is a perennial herb, meaning that it will continue to produce flower blooms each year.

Are watsonias an invasive species?

According to the plant protection society, there are selected plant families that must be monitored because of their potential to become invasive. When watsonia plants are growing in a warm region they have the potential to become invasive.

What USDA growing zone can watsonia plants grow in?

The genus watsonia is native to South Africa (specifically in the Western Cape) and New Zealand. When growing wild they can be found grow in a fynbos scrubland, and in moist areas like beside rivers, in wetlands, and by coasts.

Unfortunately for most gardeners, watsonia plants can only grow outdoors all year long in USDA growing zone 8. Growing watsonia outside of those zones means that the corms will have to be dug up and brought indoors during the cold months, then planted again in the spring.

How often should a watsonia plant be watered?

Watsonia plants require moderate levels of water. Though they are slightly drought tolerant, they tend to perform far better if they receive consistent moisture.

Since they grow from underground corms, it is also important that they don’t receive too much water as corms are sensitive to being in waterlogged soils.

The best rule of thumb is to simply let the soil dry out completely between waterings before watering again. It’s always better to under water than to over water.

What are some other common names for watsonia plants?

The common name for the watsonia plant is a bugle lily.

Should a watsonia plant be pruned?

One significant part of watsonia care is pruning. One could decide to deadhead the spent flower heads in order to encourage a second blooming period.

Additionally, it’s important to leave the green leaves on the plant even after the flowers have perished. This is because the photosynthesizing leaves will continue to harvest energy for the plant to successfully go dormant.

Do watsonia plants prefer full sun or partial shade?

One thing that watsonia plants are rather specific about is the amount of sun exposure that they receive. These are sun loving plants and should receiving a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Though they are able to tolerate partial shade, if they are planted in an area with too much shade, there’s a chance the the flowers won’t bloom as enthusiastically as they would in full sun.

What is the ideal soil type for a watsonia plant?

Watsonia plants can tolerate a great variety of soil types, but there are a couple of characteristics that the soil can have to make sure your plant is as happy as possible.

Ideally, the soil should be well draining and moderately fertile. An easy way to accomplish both of these things is by incorporating sand and compost to the potting mix.

Compost will increase the nutrient level of the soil while at the same time increasing drainage, and sand will help improve drainage without making the soil too nutrient rich.

What is the easiest way to propagate a watsonia plant?

Though it is possible to propagate a watsonia plant through seed, it is very time consuming and not all seeds are viable. The best way is by dividing corms and planting them in new areas in the garden.

How tall do watsonia plants get?

Starting underneath the surface of the earth, watsonia plants grow from corms. A corm is basically a modified root (very similar to bulbs or rhizomes) that acts as a storage container for all of the necessary nutrients and moisture to keep a plant happy and healthy.

From a corm will grow tall and erect flowering stems that are rather branching. A stem will usually grow to be anywhere from 12 to 18 inches tall, though some varieties can grow to be over 3 feet tall!

What time of year do watsonia flowers bloom?

Watsonia flowers do wonders for the garden. These showy flowers are very brightly colored, they smell lovely, and they will attract all sorts of pollinators to your garden.

Watsonia flowers will commonly bloom in the mid summer and last into the late summer, early fall or autumn. Though they don’t last very long, their impact is still striking.