Plant 280

Scilla peruviana L. (Asparagaceae)

Portuguese squill

Scilla peruviana is native to Iberia, Italy, and northwest Africa, in the western Mediterranean, rather than South America as implied by the specific epithet. The epithet means 'of Peru' and was applied when the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus took part of a name used by the sixteenth-century Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius.

Clusius, one of the great introducers of new plants into European horticulture, used the phrase name 'Hyacinthus stellatus peruanus', apparently because he thought the plant came from Peru rather than having been brought to the Netherlands by a ship called the Peru. Whatever the reason, Clusius' name was adopted by Linnaeus. However, under the rules of plant naming, it cannot be changed to something more convenient; peruviana is therefore an eponym rather than a toponym. Topographic confusion is also caused by some of the plant's common names, e.g., Cuban lily or Caribbean lily.

The flowers of Scilla peruviana, each up to three centimetres in diameter, have six blue-violet perianth parts (there are virtually no differences between sepals and petals) and six cream-coloured stamens. The flowers are crowded into more-or-less hemispherical heads, and open from base to apex. There is tremendous variation in the colour and form of Scilla peruviana, which has contributed to the confusion of names surrounding it, and its popularity as a garden plant.

The appearance of dense spikes of star-like Scilla peruviana flowers overtopping glossy green, spear-shaped leaves in spring may be a horticultural delight. However, without a degree of control the plant can become naturalised, a weed even, either in the garden or beyond the garden wall. Its success as an invasive is at least partially a consequence of the ease with which it is propagated vegetatively.

Members of the genus Scilla are geophytes, that is, they have underground dormancy organs, bulbs. Technically, a bulb is a short stem with fleshy leaves that act as food storage organs. The leaves, or scales, which sit on the top of a base plate (stem), surround the growing tips that eventually produce the leaves and flowers. The roots emerge from the bottom of the base plate.

Traditionally, Scilla has been placed in the family Liliaceae but research over the past three decades has redefined this family. Consequently, Scilla shifted into the Hyacinthaceae and now the Asparagaceae. Moreover, limits of the genus itself, currently with some 80 species in it, are poorly defined and in need of detailed research.

Further reading

Christenhusz et al. 2017. Plants of the world. Kew Publishing.

Egmond F 2010. The world of Carolus Clusius: natural history in the making, 1550-1610. Pickering & Chatto.

Stephen Harris