Merwilla plumbea

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Botanical Name
Merwilla plumbea
Hyacinthaceae - The hyacinth family.
mer-WIL-luh plum-BEY-uh
Common Name(s)
English: Wild squill; Blue squill; Blue hyacinth
Afrikaans: Blouberglelie; Blouslangkop
IsiXhosa: ugontsana; umasixabane
IsiZulu: Inguduza
Sesotho: kgerere
Sesotho sa Leboa: ichita
Plant Group
  • Bulb / Corm / Rhizome / Tuber / Epigeal bulb Bulbs: are made up of fleshy scales as in an onion Corm: a short, swollen, underground stem that is hard and not fleshy as in a gladiolus Tuber: a solid, fleshy, underground, storage organ as in a potato Rhizome: an underground, horizontal, swollen stem at the base of the plant as in an iris Epigeal bulb: bulbs that rest above the ground with only the roots anchoring the plant to the earth as in albuca
Plant Size
  • Medium
    Tree10m to 16m
    Shrub1m to 2m
    Perennial/ground cover40cm to 60cm
    Bulb40cm to 60cm
    Succulent40cm to 60cm
  • Small to Medium
    Tree8m to 15m
    Shrub75cm to 1m
    Perennial/ground cover20cm to 40cm
    Bulb30cm to 40cm
    Succulent20cm to 40cm
  • Light or Dappled Shade Found below trees with sparse, open foliage. Ideal for the protection of herbaceous plants.
  • Partial Shade The area is in shade for part of the day and in full sun for part of the day.
  • Sun The area is in full sun for all or most of the day, all year round.
General Information
  • Deciduous Plants which completely lose their foliage for part of the year.
  • Drought Tolerance: High The plant is well adapted to arid conditions; it can survive long periods of drought and high temperatures without extra water.
  • Fragrant / Aromatic These plants posses a strong, usually pleasant odour.
  • Frost: Half-hardy The plant is able to survive low temperatures and some frost but requires protection against severe frost.
  • Water Moderate These plants will need some extra watering compared to water-wise plants. Plant them together, in at least some shade and in a convenient proximity to the house so that grey water can be utilised during times of drought.
Specific Information

Merwilla plumbea, previously known as Scilla natalensis, is a deciduous bulb, much of the upper part of which is usually above ground. The bulbs are relatively large (10 - 15 cm in diameter) and are covered with protective, dry, brown to purplish scales, reminiscent of an onion. 

The broad tapering leaves emerge in spring, before or after flowering, in an attractive rosette and are very variable:

  • Size: 30 - 50 cm long
  • Colour: predominantly bright green but may have purplish colouring on the margins or on the base or undersides of the leaves
  • Texture: smooth and hairless or with hairs on one or both sides

Leaves are shed in autumn but may remain evergreen if well watered. The plant will tolerate winter rain if well-drained, preferably planted on a slope, but will die if heavily frosted.

Bees pollinate the flowers which become honey scented in the evening. The seeds are formed in capsules that split when dry and are dispersed by the wind.

Merwilla plumbea is a very popular item in the KwaZulu-Natal muthi trade and intensive harvesting over an ever-increasing area of its distribution range is causing a marked decline in wild populations. As a result, it's Red Data conservation status has recently been upgraded Vulnerable.

This bulb should be planted with discretion as it is toxic to humans and some animals and can be fatal if any part of it is eaten.

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many small, star-shaped flowers, 10 mm in diameter, clustered at the end of a single erect  stem of  75 cm to over a meter long

  • Spring to Summer Plants will seldom bloom for the entire season as given in the list, but should flower during a period within these parameters.
  • violet-blue
  • pale blue
Growth Rate
  • Moderate Specifying growth rate can be very misleading as there is considerable variation of growth rate depending on type and species of plant, available water, supplementary feeding, mulching and general care, as well as the plants suitability and adaptability to the garden environment.
Plant Uses
  • Attracts bees, butterflies or other insects This plant attracts insects which can be food for birds or other creatures in your garden.
  • Border A strip of ground, at the edge of a driveway or path in which ornamental plants or shrubs are planted.
  • Container Trees, shrubs and ornamental species that can adapt to growing in a restricted environment.
  • Cut Flowers Plants that provide flowers suitable for ornamental uses.
  • Rock Garden An area constructed of larger rocks, arranged naturally, to emphasise the use of stones as a main element. Generally plants used do not need a lot of care.
  • Wild Garden An indigenous garden planted for the benefit of wildlife and birds. Provides food, water, a variety of mini-biomes and no poisonous chemicals are used.
Distribution and Habitat

in the provinces of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and  Mpumalanga, as well as in Swaziland and Lesotho, solitary or in groups, in grasslands, highland mist belt , steep, sunny, well drained slopes, rocky hills, damp cliff faces, near waterfalls, in moist depressions, and on the  edges of streams and vleis.

Planting Suggestions

The bulbs should be planted with at least two-thirds to one half of the bulb above ground in good, well-drained soil enriched with compost. Best planting time is in late winter to early spring. Keep a good layer of mulch around them throughout the year to retain moisture and enrich the soil. A sprinkle of slow release organic fertiliser can be applied every now and then.

They are relatively tolerant of drought but water well during the summer months for best results. Withhold water in late summer as the leaves begin to yellow and keep them dry during winter. Resume watering in spring. They are reportedly able to survive the winter rains of the Western Cape as long as the soil is very well drained and more so if planted in sloping ground. If the climate is severely cold in winter they should be grown in containers  that can be stored indoors during winter.

The plant grows easily from seed but these must be absolutely fresh - plant straight after collection and will take 4-7 years before they mature.

Merwilla plumbea resents being disturbed and may not flower for a season or two after being moved.  If left undisturbed for a few years, the bulb will develop into a clump. This can be lifted and divided during winter but if possible, rather remove only the outer bulbs so that the mother plant can remain undisturbed.

Lorraine's Garden Notes
Medicinal Uses

Merwilla plumbea is used extensively as a medicinal plant. Warmed fresh bulb scales, slightly burned bulb scales, ash from the burned plant and decoctions of the bulb are used in various ways as ointments for wound-healing, to treat sprains, fractures, boils and sores,  to draw abscesses, for female infertility, to enhance male potency and libido, as a purgative, a laxative, for enemas, for internal tumours, chest pain and kidney troubles as well as an ingredient  for  the treatment of lung disease in cattle.

In some areas the powdered bulb is rubbed into the back, joints and other body parts to increase strength and resistance to witchcraft. 

This plant should be treated with extreme caution, as taking any part of it internally is potentially fatal.  Use only under the guidance of an experienced traditional healer.

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I recently acquired Scilla Peruviana (having been told it was indigenous) and then found a Merwilla as well. I have not yet planted the bulb and am encouraged to hear that it is poisonous since a cape dune mole has arrived in my garden. Does this mean the mole will not eat it?

I have no idea what to do and where to go with the many special and beautiful indigenous bulbs I also acquired this past summer. Any suggestions on how I can protect them?

I live in Paternoster next to the ocean where gardening is a real challenge. I have made peace with golden moles but my garden can hardly cope with a dune mole onslaught. I am particularly concerned about cone bushes and proteas that have finally been established.

Hi Deirdre

First off, it is best to know exactly what you are dealing with. Go to:

I don't know if Mole Rats will eat Merwilla plumbea. Clivia and Scadoxus are also toxic but the Mole Rats cause devastation to Clivia and eat the roots and nibble on the bulbs of my Scadoxus. Boophone and Brunsvigia reportedly contain particular a chemical that protects them from Mole Rats. According to PlantZAfrica, Merwilla, although deadly to humans, is 'selectively toxic to mammals', and 'has been proven an ineffective rat poison'.

When, after long desiring these bulbs, I got some, I was unwilling to take a chance and planted them safely in a protected environment in which I now grow many of my most precious and at risk bulbs. See image. I begged and bought plastic baths from people renovating or from second-hand shops, drilled lots of drainage holes, sank them into the soil, put in a layer of gravel and filled them with soil. They are rather unsightly so I attempt to hide the edges and the system works pretty well.

I have tried orange bags and shade netting bags which worked until the bulbs outgrew them - although the Mole rats did manage to chew through them as well. You can make cages out of fine chicken wire, but this rusts and rots under the ground quite quickly. I also thought of using a crate with very small spaces in the base and lined with strong netting, but didn't it try out as I decided on the baths being more suitable.

I don't think you need worry about the Protea family. I have never had a problem with them - Mole rats like juicy roots and bulbs.

In my garden they have gone through Albuca (they love these), Clivia, Cyrtanthus (another favourite), Drimiopsis, Ledbouria, some gladiolus, Haemanthus, Nerine, Ornithogalum, Scadoxus, Tulbaghia (decimated), Sparaxis, some Watsonias and Urginia, as well as carrots and beetroot.

They have not eaten Boophone, Brunsvigia. Veltheimia, Eucomis, Amaryllis, Crinum or Hypoxis.

Although I can't answer your question, I hope this is of some help.

Kind regards

Where can I get some of these bulbs?

Hi Minda

Apologies for the tardy reply.

Click on 'Shire Wild Bulb Nursery' on the right of this page, under the heading 'You may also be interested in'.

This is where I got mine from.

Kind regards

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