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Origin and Habitat: Drimia altissima is widely distributed in tropical and southern Africa, from Senegal via East Africa ( Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti) to the South Africa comprising Namibia, and Botswana. It is reported in Uganda (W. Nile District, Karamoja District, Teso District), Kenia, and Tanzania (Mwanza District, Mbeya District, Arusha District)
Altitude range: 0–2100 metres above sea level.
Habitat and ecology: This species is very common in savanna, open woodland and scrub, forest clearings and along roadsides. It often grows in uniform populations.
- Drimia altissima (L.f.) Ker Gawl.
Drimia altissima (L.f.) Ker Gawl.
Bot. Mag. 27: t. 1074 (1808)
- Drimia altissima (L.f.) Ker Gawl.
- Idothea altissima (L.f.) Kuntze
- Ornithogalum altissimum L.f.
- Urginavia altissima (L.f.) Speta
- Urginea altissima (L.f.) Baker
- Drimia barteri Baker
- Idothea barteri (Baker) Kuntze
- Drimia paolii Chiov.
- Drimia uitenhagensis Eckl.
- Urginea brevipes Baker
- Urginea epigea R.A.Dyer
- Urginavia epigea (R.A.Dyer) Speta
- Urginea gigantea (Jacq.) Oyewole
- Ornithogalum giganteum Jacq.
- Urginea micrantha (A.Rich.) Solms
ENGLISH: African squill, Tall white squill
AFRIKAANS (Afrikaans): Maerman, Jeukbol, Maermanbol, Maermanui, Slangkop
Description: Drimia altissima (L.f.) Ker-Gawl. (= Urginea altissima, Idothea altissima, Ornithogalum altissimum) is a perennial bulbous plant producing a tall flowering stem followed by a rosette of leaves about 20-50 cm long. As the species name implies, this is one of the tallest among all African geophytes. The plants are often found in colonies and the large bulbs lie just below the surface of the soil. In this species, the flowering stem is exceptionally long, reaching 2 m and usually flowering before the leaves. The white flowers have a green streak down the middle of each petal and the subtended spurred bracts are clearly visible in young flowers. The species is variable, at least three forms occuring in W. Africa: large, medium and small sized plants.
Derivation of specific name: Latin altissima: very tall.
Bulb: Very large, globose to pear shaped and ca.8-12(-15) cm in diameter, often half above ground, with tough, white, overlapping fleshy scales and a brown outer tunic of dead scales.
Leaves: Lanceolate, light green, glabrous, (20-)30-45(-50) cm long, (2-)5-7.5 cm broad.
Inflorescence: The inflorescence is a more or less dense, cylindrical, raceme 60-90 cm long, 3-4.5 cm in diameter with up to 700 flowers. Scape erect, usually tall and robust, sometimes 0.9-1,2 m long, up to 1 cm. in diameter light glaucous green. Pedicels spreading or patent, (8-)12-25(-30) mm long. Bracts small, lanceolate, bent up to 14 mm long and obscurely spurred below the middle ( spur up to 3 mm long). Like Drimia sanguinea the inflorescences appear before the leaves.
Flowers: Perianth campanulate, 18 mm long; segments (tepals) free or united for up to 2 mm, oblanceolate-oblong, 5–12 mm long, white or greenish white, with a a green or dull purple-brown keel outside, spreading. Stamens shorter than the perianth. Filaments linear to very narrowly triangular, free or basally united to tepals slightly flattened, free part 4-7 mm. Anthers oblong, 2 mm long; style 4 mm long. Ovary ovoid, 2–5 mm long; style about as long as ovary. Flowers opening in the morning, usually closing by midday.
Fruits (capsules): Three chambered, globose or subglobose, obtusely trigonous, sometimes with an emarginate apex, 8–15 mm long, 9-15 mm. in diameter. Young fruits green.
Seeds: Semicircular 5–8 mm long glossy, black, flattened and winged. Seeds then ripen during the early part of the rainy season.
Chromosome number: 2n = 20.
Bibliography: Major references and further lectures
1) J. G. Baker “Flora Capensis” 1897
2) T. S. Kellerman, J. A. W. Coetzer “Plant poisonings and mycotoxicoses of livestock in southern Africa” Oxford University Press, 31 August 2005
3) Maurice M. Iwu “Handbook of African Medicinal Plants, Second Edition” CRC Press, 04 February 2014
4) Kirby, G. “Wild Flowers of Southeast Botswana” Struik Nature, Cape Town South Africa Page 85. (Includes a picture). 2013
5) Umberto Quattrocchi “CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants: Common Names, Scientific Names, Eponyms, Synonyms, and Etymology” (5 Volume Set) CRC Press, 03 May 2012
6) Pickering, H. & Roe, E. “Wild Flowers of the Victoria Falls Area” Helen Pickering, London Page 65. (Includes a picture). 2009
7) Hyde, M.A., Wursten, B.T., Ballings, P. & Coates Palgrave, M. (2015). "Flora of Zimbabwe: Species information: Drimia altissima."
http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/speciesdata/species.php?species_id=114260, retrieved 19 August 2015
8) Shone, D.K. & Drummond, R.B. “Poisonous Plants of Rhodesia” Ministry of Agriculture, Rhodesia Pages 30 - 31. as Urginea altissima (Includes a picture). 1965
9) M. Thulin “Flora Somalia”, Vol 4, 1995 [updated by M. Thulin 2008]
10) Brita Stedje, Ph.D. “Flora of Tropical East Africa” 1996
11) Baumann, G. “Photographic Guide to Wildflowers of Malawi” Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi Pages 196 - 197. as Urginea altissima (Includes a picture). 2005
Cultivation and Propagation: Although usually grown only by specialist bulb-grower Drimia altissima presents no great difficulty in cultivation. The ease of culture make it an invaluable subject for the impassioned bulb-growers.
Soil: It needs a slightly acid medium comprising equal parts of well decomposed compost or finely milled bark, and river or silica sand (or pumice). Plant the bulbs with the neck at, or just below soil level and can remain in the same position for many years. Grows it in pots with a diameter of at least 25 cm. Give it excellent drainage.
Water: It is usually evergreen in cultivation but needs to be kept almost dry during its dormancy as the bulbs is disposed to dwindle and rot. Its winter rest must be absolute.
Exposure: It is most suitably grown in semi-shaded but it will even grow and bloom in full sun.
Hardiness: They are sensitive to frost, but are said to be hardy -5° C (or even less).
Garden uses: In warm and temperate climates grow it sunny courtyard gardens, in raised beds and rockeries. In countries with cold winter climates, they are best grown in containers in a cool or slightly heated greenhouse. The plants are mostly grown by specialist bulb collectors, usually as container subjects.
Pest and diseases: The bulbs and leaf bases are susceptible to attack by mealy bugs, and the leaf margins are chewed by snout beetles and slugs at night.
Traditional medicine: The drug, known in commerce as the white squill, consists of the dried sliced bulbs of Drimia maritima from which the membraneous outer scales have been removed. Squill has a long history of use in medicine: The earlier Greek and Egyptian physicians used various forms of squill as therapeutic agents. An oxymel of squills was part of an Arabic prescription, and a vinegar of squill was used by Dioscorides, the Greek physician. Squill occurs in two varieties, the white and the red squill. The white variety is employed in medicine, and the red squill is used mainly for the preparation of rat poison. The African squills Drimia indica (Roxb.) Jessop. and Drimia altissima are used in folk medicine in Nigeria but are not official pharmaceutical products or articles of international trade. They have with a bitter and acrid taste and may have a Digitalis-like action (cardiotonic properties).. The drug is very hygroscopic, and if powdered drug is not well stored, it turns into a solid moldy mass.
Warning: The bulb is extremely poisonous. The juice is caustic, and poisonous to rabbits.
Propagation: By seed or rarely by division of bulbs. Offsets are rather slow to form (if ever), and are best separated from the mother bulb straight after flowering, just as the new leaves begin to develop. Seeds form readily and should be harvested and sown as soon as they can be easily removed from the fleshy berries. Seeds may take up to two months before the first leaf appears above ground, and a further four to five years to flower for the first time.
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