Where the M5 motorway snakes along the southern slopes of Table Mountain, just below the University of Cape Town, there’s a narrow strip of grass and trees that separates the lanes. It was there, perhaps a decade ago, driving home one afternoon, that I first spotted them: a cluster of fake pink lilies on long, straight stems that had appeared overnight. Obviously hand planted. A student art project maybe? Not really, it turned out.
Quite how these marvels of nature had avoided my attention for a lifetime remains a mystery but when I quizzed her about them, my mum’s eyes lit up: ‘Oooo, I absolutely love March lilies, they come up just in time for our birthdays!’ When she died a few years later it was, co-incidentally, at exactly the same time that I spotted the first blooms. And as is their bulbous habit, their numbers grow with each passing year. They’ve even popped up in the tiny green belt around the corner from our house, huddling together around tree trunks and defiantly standing their ground at the base of the refuse bin!
Amaryllis belladonna to members of the Botanical Society (and in fact not true members of the lily family) they are known by numerous other common names that have nothing to do with a time of year, from the Jersey lily and St Joseph’s staff to the Naked Lady, a nod to the bare stem that pops up out of nowhere and can reach a metre in length before flowering.
But for me, they will always be March lilies. Magical, marvellous, March lilies. And over the years, they have become a pivotal part of my seasonal calendar, fond reminders of mum, markers of another year passing. They are harbingers of autumn chills and falling leaves, thunderstorms and waterfalls: the promise of red wine and creamy soups, and slow-cooked pots of yumminess simmering on the stove.