Fresh, light, and yet pervasive is the initial impression I got from a potted freesia (Freesia sp.). As I put my nose to the deep orange blooms and concentrate, I get more nuances. Floral? Yes, light and lovely. Green? Maybe a subtle green like violet leaves. Cool? Definitely, but with a touch of richness like a pure floral sorbet melting in a bowl with a touch of chilled caramel at the edges. Before I bought this plant I tested all of the potted freesias at the market for smell and chose the deep orange-red one for its strong, sweet scent. There were also pale lilac and white varieties; both with a light, sweet floral scent but it’s the orange-red one that I brought home. For days I smell the faint sweetness it gives to the air as it sits in my kitchen by the window.
Freesias are members of the Iris family, Iridaceae. There are 16 species of freesia endemic to southern Africa and many varieties are bred for the fresh and potted flower markets. In their native habitat they may grow anywhere from dry sandy plains to river banks and most species require significant winter rainfall. They sprout in the autumn, which is February or March in the southern hemisphere and flower in the winter or during July and August. The freesia seen for sale is a hybrid bred specifically for market and plants are selected that have 7 or more flowers per spike, large flowers on long stems, pure flower colors, a sweet fragrance, and good disease resistance. Leaves are long and sword-shaped. Flowers are produced at the base of the bloom spike and the blooms progress along the spike, all facing in one direction. They produce underground corms which are thick bulblike bases that serve as storage tissue for nutrients. In freesias, the corm is covered by a tunic of netted fibers.
The genus, Freesia, was not officially described until 1866 and soon became popular with horticulturists. It was kept as a potted plant and both yellow and white varieties could be found; a rose-pink one appeared near the end of the 19th century. As many as 500 million cut flower stems are now produced each year in the Netherlands. Freesias are self-sterile which means the flowers must be fertilized by pollen from another freesia. This method of fertilization (out-crossing) introduces variation into the offspring and makes breeding freesias a little bit unpredictable but interesting.
Freesias can be purchased from a variety of vendors as plants or corms. They prefer soil that drains well and a location with full sun. The corms should be planted 2” deep with the pointed end facing up. Plant them about 3” apart and water freely. You can also plant them about 2” apart in pots with good drainage. Commercial bulbs should grow throughout the winter and produce flowers in the spring. Blooms can be cut to bring indoors for their beautiful scent and color. Freesias are indicated for zones 9 – 11 but need cool winter temperatures. In cold areas they may not re-bloom and can be treated as annuals. But don’t worry, like a rich, cool sorbet that may not last nearly long enough, they are worth it.
Photography by Elise Pearlstine.