The saxophone watsonia

There’s a peculiar Watsonia cultivar that has been around in Australia for a century or more, but whose origin is unknown. Those who speak of it at all call it the saxophone watsonia because the flowering stems become curved down and then up again in their development, forming a J-curve like the tube of an alto or tenor saxophone.

Description

A perennial, dormant in summer and flowering in spring. Corm flattened, to 5.5 cm diam. Basal leaves 3-4, to 47 mm wide, non-glaucous green with thickened brownish margins. Stem leaves much smaller. Flowers begin in early October. Spike J-curved, with numerous short branches. Bract peracute, scarious with a green base, 20-24 mm long, exceeding internode. Bracteole shorter, bifid. Perianth mauve-pink. Tube 15-24 mm long; basal part 10-15 mm, distal part funnel-shaped, 5-9 mm. Lobes elliptic, obtuse, usually apiculate; no callus or mark at base. Outer ones oblanceolate, 26-29 mm long, 12-14 mm wide; inner obovate, 28-32 mm long, 15-16 mm wide with slightly undulate margins. Due to crowding, lobes may depart from normal aestivation with some inner lobes overlapping the outer. Stamens equilateral. Seeds very shortly 2-winged, 9-10 mm long, pale brown.

Named cultivars of perennials like watsonia are normally clones, but the saxophone watsonia is a line consisting of at least two genotypes. I have two accessions that have shown consistent phenotypic differences when grown side by side over 13 years.

  • Smaller plant (accession 34): Leaves to 63 cm long. Perianth mauve-pink, RHS 75A; tube 14-17 mm long. Anthers 9-10 mm long, dull yellow. Style branches equal or exceeding stamens. Capsule cylindrical, obtuse, 13-16 mm long. Provenance – a fete at St Jude’s Anglican Church, Brighton SA.
  • Larger plant (accession 35): Leaves to 79 cm long. Perianth a slightly cooler and darker mauve-pink, RHS 74D; tube 18-24 mm long. Anthers 12 mm long, purple. Style shorter than stamens, spreading between them. Capsule broad-fusiform, acute, 16-18 mm long. Provenance – Reids’ Nursery, Wodonga.

Judging from its leaf and flower characters, saxophone watsonia is a derivative of W. marginata, which often produces distorted flowering spikes in the wild. The other parent is likely to have been W. borbonica. I haven’t found it easy to use W. marginata as either parent in hybridisation, but the existence of the saxophone watsonia implies that such crosses can occur.

The Watsonia ‘Curviflora’ mentioned by Pescott (1926) may possibly be this plant; he noted that it had light magenta flowers on a stem “curved laterally”, and that it was bred in Australia. This name had been published as a nomen nudum by Schomburgk (1871), but with a question mark and was dropped from his next Botanic Garden catalogue in 1878.

References

Pescott, E.E. (1926) Bulb Growing in Australia. (Whitcombe & Tombs: Melbourne).

Schomburgk, R. (1871) Catalogue of Plants under Cultivation in the Government Botanic Garden, Adelaide, South Australia. (Government Printer: Adelaide).

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