Monilaria pisiformis (Haw.) Schwantes (Winter pearls)

A rummage through the jungle of my benches sometime turns up an unexpected flower. Here, on my mesemb bench, there are often yellow and white flowers but the 4cm pink flower of this Monilaria pisiformis is less usual in the family. For me, the species flowers mainly in January but it needs a lot of winter light to encourage flowering, not something the UK is renowned for, so it does miss some years.

Monilarias come from winter rainfall areas of western South Africa. Some plants from these areas are unfussy and will take water in the greenhouse whenever it comes. However, monilarias only grow well with water during the short days of winter. In practice, in my UK greenhouse, this means watering from August through to late November, then some in spring before the long summer drought. I water well, let the pots dry out and then wait a little longer before watering again. As the days get shorter, colder, and damper; they dry more slowly and I water less often. I stop watering by December, unless the weather is absolutely splendid! I do give a little more water when it flowers, provided the weather is warm and bright. In winter, they have fascinating sparkling foliage and magnificent flowers. In summer, though, they lose the leaves and fall into the category of brown ‘sticks in pots’.

Plant of the Month April 2024 Fig 1
Fig. 1 The pink flower of Monilaria pisiformis contrasting with the yellow of other mesembs. Scintillating bladder cells cover the leaves

Rot is always a risk with watering in the short days so I make sure the pots dry out as quickly as possible. I use smallish, plastic pots, with good drainage holes in the bottom. I fill them with a very gritty substrate, about 75% grit and 25% loam-rich soil. With this approach I don’t find monilarias hard to grow, either from seed or as mature plants.

The pattern of leaf development is a bit unusual. Monilarias have strictly TWO pairs of leaves a year. One pair is very short and round, almost like split peas, and lasts through the dry summer, often hidden under a dry sheath. The other, longer, pair of leaves appears between the pea halves in the autumn. These long leaves are the ones visible in the photos with flowers. They are around 5–8cm long and, like many species of Monilaria, the outsides of the leaves are covered in a scintillating carpet of ‘bumps’, the charmingly named, bladder cells.

Plant of the Month April 2024 Fig 2
Fig. 2 Close-up of the flower

Short, tufted plants, they get to about 10–15cm high and form little clumps around 10–15cm in diameter. Each year, the cycle of leaves and the consequent stem growth creates a small, new lump, a ‘pearl’ on the end of each stem. Over the years these develop into a string of pearls, a feature alluded to in both parts of the name of this species: Monilaria from the Latin ‘monile’ meaning ‘pearl collar’ and ‘pisum’ and ‘formis’ meaning ‘pea’ and ‘shaped’.

For a plant that has splendid winter colour with the leaves and the flowers, I will readily put up with the summer’s brown sticks for that!

Text & photos by David Lambie

No part of this article may be reproduced without permission. Copyright BCSS & the Author 2024

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