Flowering now: The giant Madeiran squill

By: Richard Wilford - 17/11/2010

The giant Madeiran squill (Scilla madeirensis) is flowering in the Davies Alpine House now. Read on to see how we grow this impressive plant.

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Scilla madeirensis is a fantastic species from, as you may have guessed from its name, the Atlantic island of Madeira. It is related to the tiny blue-flowered squills often seen in gardens but this plant is much bigger and flowers in the middle of winter. The violet-blue flowers are held in dense racemes that emerge from between bright green, pointed leaves.


The flowers of Scilla madeirensis

The flowers of Scilla madeirensis


Only a few weeks ago the huge, purple bulbs of this plant were dormant. The leaves of this species last throughout the winter but by the summer they have died back and the plant is dormant during the long, dry summers in its natural home, where it lives on vertical rock faces. Early in October the bulbs are given fresh soil but unlike most bulbs, the roots do not die back completely so the hefty rootball has to be carefully cleaned up before new soil can be filtered in around the edges of its new pot.


Repotting the bulbs of Scilla madeirensis

Repotting the bulbs of Scilla madeirensis in early October


Kew first received this plant in 1976 when it was just one large bulb. Over the years it has multiplied but the bulbs are still attached to a thick basal plate just below the soil surface. The only way to split them is by cutting through this base. We now have several large pots of this plant in the Alpine Nursery. The bulbs are kept above the soil level to reduce the risk of them rotting.


Pots of bulbs of Scilla madeirensis ready to be watered

Bulbs of Scilla madeirensis ready for their first watering


Once they have received some water, growth is remarkably quick. Only four days later the leaves had begun to shoot from the tops of the bulbs.


New growth appearing at the top of the bulbs

New growth just a few days after repotting


By the middle of November the flower spikes have developed and the first blooms are opening. It is then that the pots are moved into the Davies Alpine House and put on display. This is not a hardy plant and the pots are kept in a frost-free glasshouse in the nursery. It may be far from a true alpine but it does well in the Alpine House and at a time of year when any flowers are welcome, it makes an impressive sight.


Scilla madeirensis on display in the Davies Alpine House

Scilla madeirensis on display in the Davies Alpine House


- Richard -

4 comments on 'Flowering now: The giant Madeiran squill'

tonyg says

25/11/2010 8:32:34 PM | Report abuse

Fascinating and beautiful, the bulbs alone are quite striking. Good job it's not frost hardy ... I'd never find room in my alpine house for it!

Imogen says

24/11/2010 10:19:46 AM | Report abuse

What fantastic coloured bulbs - and such beautiful extravagant-looking flowers... The Alpine House is a real pleasure when everything else seems to be folding up for the winter.

Brenton says

20/11/2010 2:07:15 AM | Report abuse

Wonderful plant. Extraordinary beauty evolves from those bulbs!


19/11/2010 5:06:35 AM | Report abuse

It is very informative and interesting article.

About us

Looking north towards the Davies Alpine House from the Rock Garden

Several people contribute to the Alpine and Rock Garden Team blog. Richard Wilford is the Collections Manager in the Hardy Display Section at Kew. His responsibilities include all the areas where alpines are grown at Kew Gardens. The three team leaders, Joanne Everson, Graham Walters and Katie Price, each have their own particular parts of the Gardens to look after. Between them, these four experts have over 55 years experience of growing alpines.

Alpines at Kew Gardens are not only grown to create colourful and informative displays, they also play an important role in the research Kew carries out around plant naming, classification, biodiversity and conservation.

Mountains are found on every continent and each range has its own unique alpine flora, but these plants are under threat from climate change. As temperatures rise, alpines are forced higher and will eventually have nowhere to go. The alpine collections at Kew are studied to help us all understand the mountain flora better and make informed decisions about protecting its future.

"Probably the most beautiful glasshouse in the world is the Davies Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew", John Hoyland, Gardens Illustrated, April 2011

Richard Wilford has written a book on alpines, 'Alpines from Mountain to Garden', published by Kew Publishing. You can buy it in the Kew shops or from Kewbooks.com.

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