The International World of Bulbs

I have been looking at autumn flowers. Some are simply the carryover from summer (the roses, hydrangeas and perennials) and they can look a little tired by this time. But the autumn flowering bulbs are fresh and delightful. I love bulbs. Because most are deciduous (in other words, disappearing completely when they go dormant), their seasonal appearance is like a surprise each year.

As a general rule, we are more successful with bulbs which are described as winter rainfall types. This is true of most of the west coast of New Zealand because we get plenty of winter rainfall. Winter dormant bulbs come from areas with dry and usually cold winters and they can simply rot out in our mild and wet winters.

Most of the bulbs flowering now are classified as winter rainfall bulbs. These are the ones which put up a brave flower spike long before their foliage appears. The naked ladies (belladonna amaryllis) are not particularly prized as garden plants here, being seen more as roadside or driveway clumps. I guess this is simply because they do so well for many of us. If they were difficult to grow, we might rate them more highly because they are a lovely autumn flower. We have much of our road frontage planted in them and the colours range from the common pinks through to deep cerise and white. Because these bulbs come from the Cape Province of South Africa (the home territory of the majority of our bulbs), they thrive on baking in hot sun to maximise flowering so are best planted half in and half out of the soil, with their necks above ground.

Nerines are another South African bulb, best grown in undisturbed clumps with their necks out of the ground. In fact they belong to the same botanical family as belladonnas. Also triggered by cooling temperatures and autumn rains, the flowers appear before the foliage. They are not always easy to get established and flowering well, but if you can, they make a splendid autumn feature. The hybrids tend to have much larger flowers and be showier but grab them when you see them or when somebody offers them because they are rarely available commercially. There are the occasional “amarines” around. These are crosses between belladonnas and nerines but they are apparently not a great improvement yet on either of their parents.

Also from the amaryllidaceae family of South Africa is the haemanthus coccineus and it does the same autumn flowering. I don’t think this has a common name but many readers would recognise it when they see it. From winter through to mid summer, it has enormous fleshy leaves which lie flat on the ground, looking somewhat like elephant’s ears. The leaves can be 20cm across and 45cm long so you need the right spot in the garden for this plant but it certainly looks exotic. After the leaves have died away in summer, it puts up strange red flowers which look like bushy round paint brushes. It is tricky to divide because you are meant to do it while it is dormant, which is a very brief period in mid summer and I usually miss it.

Not to be outdone, southern Europe has given us colchicums which many of you may know as the autumn crocus. Botanically they are a different family and most crocus flower in spring. Again the colchicum flowers appear in autumn and if you can naturalise a clump, they are extraordinarily pretty, in a crocus sort of way.

Europe has also given us most of the cyclamen – thank you Greece and Turkey. The trickier species (and therefore more appealing to some gardeners) tend to come from further south in the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan areas. I keep hoping I can get cyclamen libanoticum established but I see it is endangered even in its homelands of Lebanon. Of them all, it has the most exquisite flower, in my eyes at least, but I see I am losing the battle to find a spot it will enjoy. I think our climate is just too wet and humid. But cyclamen hederafolium (also known as neapolitanum) from southern Europe and Turkey, naturalises wonderfully and just keeps gently seeding in the garden and getting better. It remains a mystery to me why people would chose to grow those rather gross commercial cyclamen hybrids produced as throwaway house plants when you can grow the charming species so easily in well drained soil in the garden.

The Americas gave us zephyranthes (from the same botanical family as the belladonnas, nerines and haemanthus). They are occasionally referred to as “rain lilies”, Mark thinks (but he says he could be wrong), because they have a clear response to precipitation. They flower. If it then gets very dry, they will go dormant again and wait for the next rains to flower again. Some of these species will flower through till autumn for us and they are effective naturalised on the side of the gravel driveway where they will pop up their crocus-like flowers without ever getting too much foliage.

There are other autumn flowering bulbs – each year I wax eloquent to a doubting public about the merits of the much maligned ornamental oxalis family. And Mark, in the spirit of oneupmanship in the garden, says that if you don’t have a brunsvigia in flower now, you can’t call yourself a gardener. There is a challenge for some. (Ssh – he only has one brunsvigia himself and it is now flowering for the first time.)

All of the above fall into the category of winter rainfall bulbs and so do most of our spring flowering bulbs – it is just that the latter put their foliage up first. So most of these are breaking dormancy and into growth now (think bluebells, lachenalias, daffodils and the like).

Summer rainfall bulbs rely on moist summers and dry winters so need more care in our climate here but can be grown in the right spot – which for us means ground where they will not get waterlogged in winter. Galtonia, eucomis and crocosmia are examples of this grouping.

But if you have ever bought beautiful hyacinths in flower one year, only to find that they barely perform the following year and dwindle away thereafter, it is because they belong to a group of bulbs which are accustomed to going dormant in winter to survive extremely cold temperatures. Proper snowdrops (galanthus), crocus (the spring flowering ones), fritillaria and some of the scillas fall into the same category. In mild climates they just don’t get the winter chill they need. Readers closer to the Central Plateau area will have far more success with these than those nearer the coast.

Sadly, bulb aficionados are a small minority so it is not easy to find much beyond common daffodils, Dame Edna gladdies, anemones and ranunculus in the garden shops. If you fancy the less common bulbs, you will need to search out mailorder nurseries and they are a dwindling resource these days. But I am sure some reader will proudly tell me they have sourced a brunsvigia one day.