Horticulture Magazine
red and orange freesia flowers in focus

Overview

Official Plant NameFreesia
Plant TypePerennial
Native AreaSouth Africa (modern hybrids cultivated)
Hardiness RatingH2/H3
ToxicityNone
FoliageDeciduous
FlowersVarious colours
When To Sow (Indoors)September, October, November
When To PlantMay, June
Flowering MonthsJune, July, August
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0 – 0.1M

Bloom Time
June – August

Soil

Preferred
Chalk, loam, sand

Moisture
Well-drained

pH
Alkaline / Neutral

Out of Africa via the Victorian Era, Freesia, a cormous perennial, combines a fulsome appearance with refined elegance.

Consider that each flower stalk is top-heavy with eight trumpet-shaped flowers but each bloom is the embodiment of graceful refinement.

Moreover, the flowers are gently scented or intensely fragrant. As for the colours, you get it all from cool blues to fiery oranges, plus whites and bi-coloureds.

Freesia is a genus in the Iris family of flowering plants but in common usage, the word Freesia refers to hybrid-cultivars descending from species Freesia refracta, Freesia leichtlinii, Freesia armstrongii, and Freesia laxa. 

The term Freesia is loosely defined because a little too often cultivars of other genera in the Iris Family also get lumped with Freesias.

In the United States these are identified by the name ‘False Freesia’ to distinguish between the two sets of flowering plants with their different lineages and morphologies. Indeed, even cultivars of Freesia laxa fall within the False Freesias as that species is quite different to the extent that it used to be placed in another genus.

Then there are the ‘Flame Freesias’ which are not Freesias per se but derive from the Tritonia genus, also a member of the Iris Family. Finally, we have the ‘Blue Freesias’ which include Babiana stricta and its cultivars.

One way or another, all species and cultivars are deciduous perennials that grow from corms that are sometimes (inaccurately) called bulbs. They bloom in spring and summer.

blooms of Freesia Iridaceae in white and pink
A Naturalistic Shot of Intensely-Coloured Freesias in Bloom in a Garden Patch

Freesias are frost-tender plants and cannot be grown outdoors as easy-grow perennials in most of the United Kingdom.

If you live along the south-western and southern coast of the country you are in luck. But even if you don’t, with some effort you can still grow this hit from the Victorian Age and a hot favourite flower to this day. 

A major reason that Freesias are so admired is their delightful scent, for which these flowers are renowned. Indeed, the very word Freesia is suggestive of emollient creams, luxury lotions, and talcum powders with exquisite perfume. 

In concord with their perfume, the appearance of the blooms is elegant and refined with a hint of delicateness making Freesias an outstanding choice for romantic occasions.

But, belying their delicate appearance, cut Freesia blooms have vitality to spare – they will last a week to ten days in a vase. Another plus point is that for beautiful flowering plants they are relatively pest-resistant and disease-free.

You may have heard that Freesias are not easy to grow and we cannot argue that point. But, on the other hand, their virtues are so exceptional that you may be well advised to give them a go!

yellow, pink, red and white freesias used as cut flowers in a vase
Wonderful in a Vase, Freesias Make Long-Lasting Cut Flowers

Background & Origins

The native range of the Freesia genus spreads from Uganda and Kenya in East-Central Africa southward through South Africa.

The genus has only 16 species of which the two from which the most popular cultivars descend, i.e. Freesia refracta and Freesia leichtlinii, are South African natives. In nature their flowers are in white and in yellows while those of Freesia laxa are in hues of pink to rose red.

German Botanist Christian Friedrich Ecklon first described this genus back in 1866. He named the genus after his fellow botanist and good friend Friedrich Freese.

African plant specialist Friedrich Wilhelm Klatt was instrumental in the promotion and cultivation of the plant in the 1870s. 

The flower was first introduced to Germany, France, and Italy. Upon reaching British shores in the 1880s, cultivated Freesia shot to widespread popularity, and retains its status as a very popular flower.

Freesia horticulture has resulted in quite a number of hues in the yellow through red range.

Apart from these, crosses with and cultivars of related flowers from the Babiana genus within the same family, the Iris family, mean that Freesias include a handful of cultivars in blue and purple tones for a full spectrum of colours.

Freesia Varieties

Freesias generally attain a height of 20 to 30 centimetres.

Freesias, except Freesia laxa, have very attractive foliage of a rich green shade varying from a bright tone to a dark one. The narrow leaves are strap-shaped or lance-shaped and grow in fans.

Freesia laxa varieties have wide open star-shaped flowers. Each flower has six tepals.

Tritonia and Babiana both bear cup-shaped flowers.

‘True Freesias’ produces zygomorphic inflorescences of six to eight blooms, trumpet-shaped or funnel-shaped, all pointing in the same upward-and-outward direction courtesy of the obliging flower stalks that gracefully arc and flex. 

Blooms occur in white and in various light and pastel hues in – unlike many flowers – both the cool and warm colour spectra.

F. alba is one of the very first species to reach Europe and score an instant hit. It is perhaps the one that is most renowned for being strongly perfumed; it has a rich, heady fragrance with a touch of spice. The flowers are funnel-shaped and are white but sometimes off-white or cream, and have a golden yellow throat and yellow accents.

white freesia alba flowers
Freesia alba – one of the Original ‘Hit’ Freesias

F. laxa, hailing from Kenya, is different from the other established species in both foliage and flower. The leaves are deep green and are sword-shaped. The open star-shaped flowers are salmon pink to rose red, with the lower (three) tepals displaying darker-hued accents. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

F. laxa var. alba or ‘White Flowering Grass’ is a variety of F. laxa and is not to be confused with F. alba. The leaves are suggestive of grass, being both extremely narrow and of a light, bright green hue. The flowers are unusually open and are salver-shaped, and are pure white. RHS Award of Garden Merit.

F. lactea or ‘Milky-White Freesia’ has very narrow linear leaves and produces flowers of an opaque white tone – milky white. The funnel-shaped blooms are among the most fragrant and also among the biggest at 5 to 6 centimetres.

‘White River’ has very narrow leaves and produces funnel-shaped flowers that are pure white. For a cultivar, the strong, wonderful fragrance of the blooms is quite remarkable.

‘Belleville’ is a favourite in bouquets and is a big seller for florists. It produces perfectly-formed trumpet-shaped double flowers. They are pure white, sometimes set off by a creamy-yellow throat.

‘Elan’ produces fairly large, flared flowers measuring 5 to 6 centimetres. These are of a pastel purple hue with a creamy white throat.

‘Blue Moon’ produces narrow trumpet-shaped flowers that are of an exquisite pastel lilac-lavender tone.

Babiana stricta or Blue Freesia has pretty foliage in its own right as the strap-shaped leaves are of a rich deep green and display prominent ribbing. The funnel-shaped flowers range in hue from a fairly bright lilac to a bright purple. RHS Award of Garden Merit 

‘Fragrant Sunburst’ produces perfect trumpet-shaped flowers that are relatively large at about 6 centimetres. They also have a strong but pleasing fragrance. They are a light or pastel shade of yellow.

‘Golden Yellow’ produces narrow trumpet-shaped flowers that are quite striking, being of an exceptionally bright, sunny yellow.

very bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers of Freesia ‘Golden Yellow’
The Very Bright Yellow Trumpet-Shaped Flowers of Freesia ‘Golden Yellow’

Tritonia crocata or ‘Flame Freesia’ is native to South Africa. As one of the ‘False Freesias’ it produces cup-shaped flowers that are on the small side. They are orange to vermilion and have yellow accents on the lower (three) tepals. RHS Award of Garden Merit 

Tritonia laxifolia is another ‘Flame Freesia’ but this one hails from further north as it grows in Tanzania. The leaves are narrow and of a sparkling light green hue. The flowers are trumpet-shaped, are highly scented, and are of a dusky, sunset orange hue.

‘Oberon’ is a bicoloured stunner. The flower is golden-yellow at the centre and orange to vermilion at the outside; however, the balance of colours varies from plant to plant. In some you will notice a small yellow centre with the majority of the flower in a near-red colour; on others you will get the majority of the flower in golden-yellow with a thick orange border.

‘Red Lion’ produces funnel-shaped flowers that are genuine eye-pullers as they are a hard, deep red through and through.

‘Red River’ is another stunning bi-coloured variety. It produces flared, funnel-shaped flowers. They are bright red to lipstick red with prominent golden-yellow throats with the yellow colour sometimes radiating or gradating outward.

Three Freesia Red River flowers in focus
The Stunning Colourations of Freesia ‘Red River’

Habitat & Growing Conditions

Many Freesia species are native to the Western Cape in South Africa. They grow in nature in dry regions that get winter rainfall.

Their habitats include sandy and gravelly ground, dunes and scrubland, and the edges of forests.

The corms regenerate in February and March, which is Autumn in South Africa, and they put up flowers in the winter months of July and August.

Temperatures of 8 to 10°C are the most amenable to flowering.

Despite their preference for cool temperatures, Freesias are not hardy; their hardiness rating is only H2 and H3, depending on the variety.

Where to Plant Freesia

Freesias are classic Cottage Garden plants. And, in all truth, they are brilliant for country estates and manors.

These plants make excellent bedding plants, either in the form of a Freesia mix or as companion plants. 

Freesias and Primula Primroses, and Freesias with Crocuses, are excellent combinations that will enhance the cottage garden or country garden effect.

Freesias would be well set off grown against a backdrop of Phlox.

Though Freesia varieties are not commonly considered accent plants, they can certainly be grown as houseplants in a well-ventilated spot that gets several hours of sunlight.

A pot or two of these lovely flowers will certainly light up – and also ‘scent up’ – any room as they will a balcony or patio.

Freesia laxa
Freesia laxa’s Wide Open Flowers with Those Distinctive Darker Markings on the Lower Tepals

Feeding, Care & Growing Tips

Freesias are planted as corms but can also be grown from seeds. Germination from seed is not straightforward, and it takes anywhere from one to four months.

Seed-grown plants focus their energies on developing their corms and do not flower for the first few years.

Aspect & Soil Requirements

In the UK, Freesias should be grown in full sun, or in full morning sun and dappled or filtered afternoon sun. 

A loose and fertile sand-based soil without clay, amended with organic compost or humus will be perfect for Freesias. Incorporate gravel or perlite as necessary to ensure excellent drainage which is a must for these plants. 

Two kinds of Freesia corms are available, prepared and unprepared.

Planting

The former type are heat treated so that planting them in April will produce flowers for a long summer flowering season from July through August.

Thereafter they will revert to producing flowers in spring. Unprepared corms can be planted in September in containers or outdoors in only the very mild regions of the United Kingdom to see blooms from April.

In colder regions of the country they can be planted outdoors after the last frost. 

As a general rule Freesia corms will produce flowers 12 to 14 weeks after planting.

Plant the corms with the pointed tip upwards in loose soil that is not densely packed.

The tips should be right at the surface of the soil which means that the corms, depending on size, would be planted at a depth of 4 to 6 centimetres. They should be spaced at 6 to 8 centimetres.

Watering

Water well after planting. Keep the soil consistently moist in the early growing stages.

Soil should neither get waterlogged nor allowed to dry out. After the plant puts up leaves, water it periodically.

Cease watering it after the flowering season is over and when the foliage has wilted and browned.

yellow and orange blooms of Freesia ‘Oberon’ 
The Artistically-Coloured Blooms of Freesia ‘Oberon’ 

Temperature

Freesias are very temperature sensitive.

For the plants to flower abundantly and produce healthy flowers, the temperature over a 24-hour period needs to be between 8° and 20°C with nighttime temperatures to stay between 8° and 13°C.

Support

Though the flower stalks have a graceful flex, the truth is that all too often (the stalks of) the newer varieties with double flowers or larger flowers cannot support a full head of flowers.

Consider utilising canes or grow-through supports to keep flower stalks from getting bent and bowed.

Fertilising

Feed the plants with a 10-10-10 liquid fertiliser just when the corms send up stems.

Fertilise once again just when the first buds form with a high-potassium liquid fertiliser. It is necessary to dilute both as appropriate.

Overwintering

Freesias grown in containers can be overwintered indoors; though their foliage will have shed, the dormant corms will be protected from frosts.

If you remove corms to bring them indoors before winter, cut stems and stalks down to 2 to 3 centimetres.

Place the corms in a cool, dark place so that they can dry out, then pack them lightly in sand or peat moss, put them in a mesh bag, and store in a cool (but not cold) and dry room. 

Before planting the corms back outdoors after the last frost they will have to be heat-treated, howsoever amateurishly.

For at least two months before re-planting the corms will need to be kept at a temperature of about 30°C. Keeping them on a sunny windowsill is a simple time-honoured technique that usually does the trick.

If you preserve your corms, about every four years you should separate the offsets, to be used as new corms.

Bright Purple Variant of Babiana stricta
A Bright Purple Variant of Babiana stricta, one of the ‘non-Freesia’ Freesias

Pruning Freesia

If you wish to cut these flowers, cut the flowering stalk of an inflorescence or a cluster when only one of the buds has bloomed and the rest are still half-open or are still buds.

They will open up in a vase over a few days. You can prolong vase life by changing the water daily and by cutting the stems at an angle.

Cut the flowers in the morning, preferably early to mid-morning, to further extend vase life.

Spent flowers should be cut for cosmetic reasons but not the foliage, even after it yellows. The leaves keep producing energy to be stored in the corms.

Cut the foliage only after it has browned and died.

Common Problems

Again belying their delicate appearance, Freesias are relatively pest-free and disease-free flowering plants.

The only pest that they are susceptible to is aphids. Other than that they may suffer from glasshouse red spider mite under glass or indoors.

Some varieties may occasionally succumb to fusarium wilt.

Aphids are treated by washing them off and applying organic products like BotaniGard ES or Safer’s soap. Ladybugs will help against both aphids and red spider mite. 

As a first step to fighting red spider mite, try a neem oil and soap solution in soft water, and spray it on the entire plant, both to wash away the pests and to ensure they cannot return.

For a heavy localised infestation cut off the affected parts and dispose of them.

Where to Buy Freesia

Freesias are immensely popular and you shouldn’t have trouble finding potted plants or corms.

You will be able to find several potted varieties at brick-and-mortar nurseries as well as online ones during spring and summer.

You can find corms year-round from online sellers. Prepared corms are available only during March and April.

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