Freesias are a member of the iris family and have long been popular in the cut flower trade as well as with home gardeners. Growing from small corms, they reach about 18 inches in height and feature long, strap-like leaves. The flowers appear atop arching spikes, with petals that may be yellow, orange, red, blue-purple or white. Each flower has six petals, joined into a tube at the base.
In 1865, botanist Christian Friedrich Ecklon first described Freesia as a separate and distinct genus. The wild relatives of modern hybrid freesias are native to southern Africa. The genus freesia includes about 20 species. At various times during the last two centuries, some species have been assigned to other genera. Two prominent ancestors of today's hybrids, Freesia corymbosa and Freesia refracta, were thought to be gladiolus at first. Freesia caryophyllacea was assigned to the Ixia genus.
The first species cultivated in Europe arrived there around 1766. Other species were subsequently discovered, sent from Africa, propagated and described by botanists for the next 100 or so years. During that time, freesias were collectors' plants and not widely grown.
In 1874, German botanist Max Leichtlin discovered the yellow-flowered freesia later named in his honor (Freesia leichtlinii) in the Botanic Gardens in Padua, Italy. Freesia leichlinii became popular, as did Freesia alba, which first appeared in England in 1878. Breeders began using these species in hybridization, later also crossing them with the pink-flowered Freesia corymbosa and another, deep yellow form of the same species. These four freesias were the ancestors of most modern hybrids.
In 1901, a Dutch firm, C. Van Tubergen, began breeding freesias, producing strains that are still popular. Around the same time, firms in England, Germany and the United States began developing their own strains. Today breeding and propagation work continues, especially in The Netherlands. Freesias, especially those for the cut flower market, are grown throughout the world. Though hybrid freesias are vigorous and floriferous, some authorities note that the breeding advances have come at the expense of the pleasing fragrance present in species like Freesia leichtlinii.
Freesias like well-drained, acidic soil and the corms should be planted at a depth two to three times the height of the corm. The plants flourish with morning sun, afternoon shade and supplemental watering only when the soil is dry. Freesias flower in spring and should be allowed to go dormant in summer. Gardeners in cold winter areas should bring potted specimens indoors in autumn and then begin watering again.