Family: Amaryllidaceae

Appearances can be deceiving.

This is especially true in the case of Acis autumnalis – a diminutive character that looks like it should be overrun by all comers, but somehow always finds a way through in late summer and autumn. Considering its fortitude and fecundity, it is surprising how little one sees this excellent Mediterranean bulb planted within New Zealand gardens – as opposed to its widely-grown (and comparatively coarse) relative, Leucojum aestivum.

For a long time, Acis was included within Leucojum1, whose members (both current and former) are widely referred to as snowflakes. That common name of ‘snowflake’ occasionally causes confusion with respect to snowdrops (Galanthus); a closely related genus within Amaryllidaceae whose nodding flowers are differentiated from Acis and Leucojum by their arrangement into two distinct whorls of 3 tepals (with the inner tepals forming a distinctive inverted ‘cup’).

Acis comprises 9 species, of which at least 3 species have been cultivated within New Zealand – A. autumnalis, A. nicaeensis and A. rosea. The genus occurs around the Mediterranean Basin, from Spain and Portugal to North Africa, and eastwards to Greece. Most species favour relatively open, dry, rocky or sandy habitats, whilst the commonly-grown A. autumnalis is able to thrive in a wide array of environments (including open wooded areas and grassland) and the robust species A. tingitana is asociated with seasonally moist ground adjoining streams2.

Acis autumnalis

Autumn snowflake

A number of flowering bulbs that we use within our work form ‘constellations’ of flowers on the ground, and it seems to be no coincidence that several of these (including Pauridia alba, Empodium plicatum and Acis autumnalis) time their flowering for autumn. At the end of summer, plant communities often become more open; a circumstance that combines with the advent of autumn rains and morning dew to spur such species into action.

We have grown Acis autumnalis for over a decade in a variety of conditions (from extremely dry containers to damp, sloping ground) and an unerring regime of benign neglect. Despite its preference for open ground, this species is untroubled by close proximity to native shrubs and groundcovers, and it increases steadily without becoming a nuisance.

A. autumnalis occurs naturally in the Iberian Peninsula, Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily, where it is found in habitats from the coast to the mountains. In accordance with its wide-ranging natural distribution, it can be cultivated successfully throughout New Zealand – from the humid warmth of the north to the seasonally cold interior of the south.


  1. The two are separable on the basis of morphology – Acis have solid scapes (flower stems), whilst Leucojum‘s scapes are hollow – and distinct chromosome numbers, as well as distribution and general habitat preferences.
  2. As noted by Brian Mathew (from a description of habitat in Morocco that John Blanchard visited) in his account of A. tingitana for The Kew Magazine (‘Leucojum tingitanum : Amaryllidaceae’. Mathew, B. 1992. The Kew Magazine. Vol. 9, No. 4 : p. 156-160).