Prairie Nymphs at Rouse Hill

A pair of Herbertia in bloom at Rouse Hill House and Farm

Pair of Herbertia lahue flowers in the Rouse Hill House and Farm stables paddock. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

The recent rain has brought out one of Rouse Hill’s tiniest garden jewels – the bright blue flowered Herbertia. Easily overlooked, these small flowers have 3 prominent outer petals, and 3 very tiny inner, with complex patterning at the centre. If you look at the photo you’ll see just how small they – just a few centimetres high and wide. We usually see them right through the stables paddock, but this year there’s quite a flush of them in the pleasure garden. 

Herbertia lahue is a member of the iris family from Chile and Argentina (so they look like a tiny, dwarf iris, though grow from a corm-like bulb, not a rhizome) Charmingly they’re called ‘prairie nymph’ in the southern US states. Another form, the very similar Herbertia pulchella, is listed in the 1843 Camden Park nursery lists, and it’s interesting to read that the two are often mixed up in sales to this day. The species name ‘Herbertia volubile’ also appears in various plant show reviews in NSW in the very late 1890s. 

Diagram of Herbertia from Curtis The Botanical Cabinet volume 16
Herbertia from Curtis The Botanical Cabinet Vol 16. Image © Missouri Botanic Gardens

The English gardener and writer Joseph Paxton (whose expertise in glasshouses led to his designing the Crystal Palace of 1851) wrote about Herbertia (H. drummondii) in his Magazine of Botany (1848), describing them as a greenhouse plant in colder, wetter Britain:

The proper soil for their growth is equal parts of light sandy loam, heath-mould, and sand, mixed and broken together, but not sifted. After being potted, do not subject them to any heat, until they have grown considerably; for if this be done, they often grow weakly, and of course do not flower so fine…  When newly potted, and until they have formed good roots, water very sparingly; but as the plants advance towards flowering, increase the supply, and when in full bloom, water liberally. After the flowers fade, again diminish the quantity; and when the leaves become yellow and ripe, wholly discontinue it until after the season of rest. As soon as the leaves are dead, place the pots in a cold situation again, where they will remain perfectly dry until the growing season returns, which will be in about three months after the tops are decayed. 

Paxton’s magazine of Botany and Register of Flowering Plants, Volume 14. William S. Orr & Co., London 1848. Pp 185-6

But what are these tiny plants doing so far from home?

Essentially they’re an escapee from the 19th century ornamental garden, and most likely from pots cared for by Bessie (nee Buchanan) Rouse, that have happily naturalised itself in the paddocks and through the garden lawns – even on some of the grassed paths. Herbertia like a dry, well drained slightly alkaline soil and plenty of sun so have thrived ever since around Rouse Hill house. 

Keep an eye out: once you spot one you’ll realise they’re everywhere you look. 

Single flower of Herbertia lahue at Rouse Hill House and Farm
Close up of the Herbertia lahue in the Rouse Hill House and Farm stables paddock. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

About the author

Dr Scott Hill

Curator

As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.