What is Moraea?

Terrie Brockmann

Many plants belonging to the species Moraea in the Iridaceae family have blossoms that resemble Japanese iris flowers. Gardeners value these plants for their showy flowers more than for their foliage. Generally, Moraea plants are native to grasslands in various parts of Africa, especially parts of South Africa. The plants are cormous perennials that prefer to live in frost-free regions. In the U.S., they usually grow best in USDA hardiness zones nine and ten.

Moraea plants are native to grasslands in various parts of Africa, especially parts of South Africa.
Moraea plants are native to grasslands in various parts of Africa, especially parts of South Africa.

A number of experts reassigned some of the 120 species in the Moraea genus because they grow from rhizomatous roots instead of corms. Not all literature and Internet information supports this reclassification. A prospective buyer needs to consider this when purchasing the plants.

The flowers typically have six spreading tepals that resemble petals. The three outer segments are larger and often differently colored at the base. These tepals surround an erect, petal-like, three-parted crest. The tongue-like outer tepals usually are horizontal or drooping, and the three inner tepals rise above them. Often a contrasting stripe or patch colors the outer tepals. This is often called the nectar guide because botanists theorize it guides insects to the nectar for pollination.

The leaves usually resemble enlarged blades of grass. The sword-shaped leaves may be flat or rolled and are often channeled, or lined, with one or more long grooves. Typically, they are deciduous or evergreen, depending on the climate and the species or cultivar. One of the most unusual leaf shapes of the Moraea plants belongs to M. tortilis, which has corkscrew-shaped leaves. Some plants have multiple leaves, and others have only one leaf.

There are many popular species that gardeners value. One of them, M. crispa, has unusual flowers that growers describe as a pinwheel. These little blooms are barely larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter and bloom for only one day. The plant generally has only one dark-colored leaf and sends up a new bloom when the previous one is spent, usually for a period of 10 to 14 days.

Although most Moraea flowers resemble the iris family flowers, some do not. One-leaf cape tulip, or M. flaccid, and other cape tulips have flowers that resemble tulips more than irises. The three outer tepals of M. villosa plants are very large, rounded, and purple with very colorful nectar guides. The inner tepals, called standards, are very small, giving the flower a saucer-like shape. The multi-colored nectar guides are teardrop-shaped and have a banded pattern of red or orange, black, and blue radiating from the tepal base.

Generally, growers propagate the plants in two ways. A grower can sow the seeds or separate the corms if the mother plant produces cormlets. Not all plants produce seeds, and not all produce cormlets. Whether they do mostly depends on the species, variety, and cultivar.

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