Plant of the week: Hesperantha

Plants that flower at the start of the year, or at the end of the season, tend to get ignored by garden centre shoppers. After all, we visit garden centres to buy Christmas decorations or warming coffee and mince pies from now on! But late blooms in the garden are incredibly valuable at this time of year. One of the best is Hesperantha coccinea. This is one of those plants that suffers from an identity crisis. Until recently it was called Schizostylis (meaning ‘split style’ not split personality) and it has no politically acceptable common name. In its native Eastern Cape and Natal in South Africa it is called the scarlet river lily and, despite it not being a lily, I think this is a much better common name, than the one usually used, and it hints at what conditions it prefers. 

This is a plant that is related to iris and gladioli and it forms a clump of narrow, grassy leaves. The brilliant scarlet, pink or white flowers are produced on slender stems, about 45cm tall, any time from August to December and are lovely for picking for the house. 

Why grow it?

The brilliant or pastel blooms are delightfully fresh and showy, and mirror that other autumn-blooming South African, the nerines. Hesperantha are hardy and generally easy to grow once you find the right spot. If needed, they are be easily grown in a pot but the plants look mediocre for 9 months of the year. But they will gladden the heart in autumn. 

Where to grow it

This can be the tricky part. Hesperantha will flower best when planted in full sun. It prefers a soil that has some added organic matter and will not grow well in chalky clay. Sandy soils are perfect but it needs plenty of moisture throughout the growing period, especially summer. So sandy dry soils will be problematic. If you have a patch that drains badly and is even wet in winter, that will be perfect. In the wild this plant grows beside streams and even in them. Except in the coldest gardens it is perfectly hardy. My own plants were in a bed that got rather dry in summer – average conditions – and it grew slowly and flowered poorly. This spring I divided the clump and replanted in a spot that is waterlogged after heavy rain and it is far stronger and blooming well – as you can see. 

Where to start

You can buy roots in packs but because this is not truly a corm and never dormant it is best to start with a potted plant and you can buy and plant now. The most common is the typical scarlet but there are many kinds in various shades of pink. ‘Viscountess Byng’ is common, with small pink flowers usually well into December. 

What to do

If you have a suitable spot then this is an easy plant that won’t need much attention apart from a tidy up in spring. Every few years you can divide clumps in spring and replant immediately to maintain vigour and improve flowering. If growing in a patio pot, use lime-free John Innes and place the pot in a saucer to keep the compost moist from May to September. 

Who will like this? 

Anyone who likes some late colour in the garden.

Plant them with …

Any herbaceous plants in a moist garden border including astilbes, primulas, hostas, carex and ferns. 


I refer to this plant as hesperantha (for convenience and accuracy) but it was called schizostylis. Now it is lumped with other hesperantha and the other species need different treatment, though they are not commonly available. When I mention hesperantha I mean H. coccinea!

What to do this week:

Garlic: Get your garlic planted now if you have not done so already. Choose a sunny spot and pull the bulb into individual ‘cloves’ and plant these, so the top of the bulb is at soil level, 15-20cm apart.

Empty summer pots and baskets: refill with fresh compost if it is more than a year old or rejuvenate old compost with controlled-release fertiliser (season-long fertiliser). Replant with spring bulbs and flowers.

Plant shrubs: This is the perfect time to buy and plant shrubs and trees

Clear way old veg: Pull up old vegetable plants and add to the compost heap

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