Tag Archives: autumn bulbs

More on belladonnas

Needing a break from a garden task, I wandered around with my flower basket, curious as to how much variation there is in the belladonna flowers still in bloom, given that ours are all seedlings. A fair amount, it turns out, in colour and size. This was not an exhaustive survey into the average number of blooms per flower spike, variations in flower form and length of time in bloom. There are limits to how interested I am in this particular genus.

Paler hues – 3rd from left has quite a sweet picotee edging. The one on the hard right was a noticeably different colour verging on more apricot tones – presumably the yellow throat bleeding colour further into the pink

There were a few interesting breaks – the palest form with pink picotee edging, the one which appeared to be developing apricot tones rather than shades of sugar pink, a big deep cerise one with an attractive white star within the trumpet. Some plants have noticeably larger blooms but, as with many plants, this can make the flowers more vulnerable to weather damage and often with fewer flowers to the truss. There is always a trade-off in the plant world.

The deepest coloured forms – cerise almost getting to red – tend to be later flowering and are  the only ones that we have ever had picked by passersby. But that was years ago. These days our road verges are so steep that there is nowhere safe to stop and nowhere to walk so the flowers are safe. It is an ill wind, I guess, though we would prefer more hospitable road verges and slower traffic.

There is only one single species in this family of Amaryllis belladonna but clearly that species is variable within itself. I am not sure that there is a great future for them other than as casual clumps on road verges or in wilder areas of the garden. Lovely though they are on their days, their blooming season is brief, they form large clumps of large bulbs and hang onto their foliage for a long time before it dies off untidily. They don’t lend themselves to the flower garden where they will swamp anything around them and take up a lot of space for their 10 days or so of glory.

  • From the Cape Province of South Africa.
  • Known as ‘naked ladies’ because they put up their flower well before the foliage appears.
  • Summer dormant.
  • Prefer to grow with their necks above ground so they can bake in the summer sun.
  • Thrive on benign neglect and can be left undisturbed for many years.

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The end of the long, hot summer is nigh

Belladonnas – a roadside flower for us

Summer continues here with temperatures in the mid to late mid twenties during the day, and often not dropping much below 17 at night. That is celsius, of course. With our near-constant high humidity, it feels hotter. Dry heat is easier to live in. But we are not complaining. Last summer never really arrived and we would have been lucky to have a single day where temperatures reached 25 or 26, rather than the three months so far this year.

Our belladonnas range from pure white through pretty pastel pink to sugar candy pinks and all shades between

What is interesting is that while the temperatures haven’t really dropped, the garden is starting to tell us that autumn is coming. The belladonnas are already past their peak, Cyclamen hederifolium is in full bloom  as is the tiny, dainty autumn snowflake, Leucojum autumnalis. Moraea polystachya has started its blooming marathon.Even the first nerine has opened and I spotted a flower on an autumn flowering camellia – C. microphylla. Haemanthus coccineus is out and the exquisite Rhodophiala bifida have already been and almost gone, their lovely trumpet blooms touched with gold dust now withering away for another year.

Cyclamen hederafolium seed down happily for us now

Some plants are triggered into growth or blooming by temperature, some by seasonal rain (we can do the South African autumn bulbs so well because we get summer rain, even in a drought year such as this has been) and some are triggered by day length. While our weather conditions are still indubitably summer, the day length is shortening and these plants are programmed to respond.

We don’t get sharp seasonal changes because our temperature has quite a small range from both summer to winter and day to night. It will be another three months before the trees start to colour. But the garden is coming out of its summer hiatus and entering autumn, whether we are ready or not.

Stachys Bella Grigio is giving up the ghost. Whiffing off, as we say.

Some plants just like to confound you. I wrote earlier about Stachys ‘Bella Grigio’, the startling white, felted variety that was so happily ensconced in a new garden. Booming away, even. It was setting so many offshoots that I thought I would be able to carpet many square metres by the end of the season. Well, it was an ‘upanddieonyou’ after all. It has been upping and dying like mad in the last weeks. Otherwise known as ‘whiffing off’ here.

I dug up a couple of wilting plants to see what was going on. They are dying from the top down. Their roots are fine. As an aside, if you are puzzled by why a plant is clearly dying, basically they die either bottom up or top down so it is always interesting to carry out an autopsy. Each of these plants was carrying 30 or more offshoots. I took off the ones with roots and have tried replanting them and I thinned out the offsets which had not yet established their own roots because it looked a bit as if the plants were smothering themselves to death in their desire to reproduce. There was no sign of insect infestation.

“It’s probably climatic,” Mark said. His thinking is that we are too humid and it has been particularly so this summer, whereas that felted white foliage is usually indicative of alpine plants. I think it is varietal. I have heard too many stories from others who have experienced specimens of this plant thriving, established and growing well before suddenly keeling over and dying. I cleaned up two plants and replanted the offsets out of curiosity. If I have to do this every year to keep these plants alive, then I am afraid I will decide very soon that it simply is not worth the effort.

We have mown the meadow for the season. Well, Lloyd has. With our special sickle bar mower, imported from Germany. We are still learning how to best manage the meadow in our conditions and Mark thinks that we are leaving the mowing too late and that it would be best done soon after Christmas for the first mow with a follow up in autumn. Maybe next year.

Mark has just declared that the sickle bar mower is otherwise known as the primary herbivore here. He has been reading about eco-systems and wondering what we could be introducing to NZ, given that our primary herbivore, the moa, is now extinct.

You can tell our climate is mild. We have begonias as a roadside hedge.

A colchicum is not an autumn crocus

Crocus to the left, colchicum to the right

It is that time of year, dear Readers, when it is time to remind some of you, that the larger bloom to the right is NOT a crocus. Not at all. It is not even a relative. It is a colchicum. The left-hand flower is an autumn flowering crocus, probably one of the C. serotinus group, maybe salzmanii.

Colchicums come from the family of Colchicaceae and the order of Liliales.

Crocus belong to the subfamily of Crocoideae, family of Iridaceae and order of Asparagales.

That is the botanical explanation. The lay explanation is that crocuses are much smaller and daintier and bloom at the same time their fine foliage is coming through. Many of the 90 or so species flower in spring but some will bloom in autumn.

Colchicums flowering now

Colchicums, on the other hand, bloom well before their foliage ever appears and have much larger chalice blooms – and more stamens if you can be bothered counting. Compared to the crocus, they look as if they are on steroids but in fact it is the product of colchicine which is extracted from them. Colchicine’s main use was – or is – as an anti-inflammatory for the treatment of gout. Not one to try yourself at home, however, because it is highly toxic in the wrong hands. When the foliage appears much later, it is large and lush all winter until it dies off, untidily, in mid spring.

Because they flower before the foliage appears, colchicums are sometimes referred to as “naked ladies” (even “naked boys” I found somewhere on the internet though I have never heard that), but that is merely confusing to those of us who understand belladonnas to be naked ladies.

Crocus, but probably serotinus, not the saffron crocus

Crocus, on the other hand, give us saffron. Well, the saffron crocus does but we failed with our efforts to grow it here despite starting with a fair number of corms. They did not reappear after the first season. Too wet and humid, I think.

Colchicums are a better bet when it comes to naturalising bulbs in a meadow setting, being somewhat tougher and showier in such circumstances.

Rock on – our rockery in autumn

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

Nerine sarniensis hybrids blooming in the rockery

When I am old and maybe decrepit, needing to draw in the boundaries of the garden, I shall fluff around in the rockery. I really enjoy this area and, as we enter autumn, my heart sings with the new season blooms.

Traditionally, rockeries are for growing alpines and sometimes retaining banks. However, we can’t grow alpines in our climate and our rockery is on the flat. It is pure 1950s vintage, built from a combination of rocks of various sizes, concrete and some brick, with sunken paths and raised beds divided into many hundreds of little pockets of soil. It is designed for highly detailed gardening and at about 20 metres by 10 metres, it is relatively large.

The purpose of the multitude of small beds is to keep bulbs separate and to confine the more invasive ones. Most of the pockets have two or three different types of bulbs in them to give seasonal interest.

There is always something to see, though summer is the toughest season. Because there is so much stone and the beds are elevated, parts of it dry out almost to dust. We have dwarf conifers, cycads, and a few other small shrubs to give both all year round structure and summer shade. There are a few smaller perennials and a limited range of annuals and biennials but generally, the rockery is about the bulb collection.

The range of nerine colours at one time

The range of nerine colours at one time

As we enter autumn, it is as if the rockery heaves a sigh of relief and leaps back into life. All the bulbs whose growth is triggered by autumn rains start to move.

As a general rule, we find that the species bulbs look better. They are usually smaller flowered and more delicate in appearance than the showy hybrids which can look out of scale and even vulgar in this particular context. The exception is the nerines which peak this month. While we grow some nerine species, it is the sarniensis hybrids that dominate. A few of these are of Exbury origin but most are the result of breeding efforts by both Felix and Mark Jury. The colour range is delightful – from white, through every shade of pink including near iridescent highlighter pink, to purple, corals, almost apricot, oranges and reds. Unlike the floristry business, we want shorter, squatter stems so that the heavy heads are held upright even through autumnal weather.

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium

Also lighting up the autumn is Cyclamen hederafolium (formerly known as C. neapolitanum) which hails from southern Europe and Turkey. This is the easiest of the dainty species cyclamen to grow and it has gently naturalised itself here. It throws its first brave flowers up in January but peaks this month. It is one of a number of autumn bulbs that bloom first before the leaves appear. Others are most of the nerines, colchicums and Haemanthus coccineus.

Moraea polystachya

Moraea polystachya

The pretty autumn flowering peacock iris, Moraea polystachya, outdoes almost every other bulb with its long flowering season. It seeds down gently into the cracks between the rocks without becoming an invasive menace. Some of the ornamental oxalis also give extended displays of colour but not all oxalis are born equal and neither are they all born with good manners. The most reliable performers in our rockery are O. purpurea ‘Alba’, O. luteola and O. lobata. They have been here for decades and never looked threatening.

O. luteola and purpurea 'Alba'

O. luteola and purpurea ‘Alba’

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale

Then there are the bulbs with a much shorter season. Colchicum autumnale makes a bold statement with its big lilac chalices held above bare soil. Hippeastrum bifida is a transient delight for us. We have it in both pink and red and the blooms look as if they have been touched with gold leaf when the sun shines through. The autumn flowering leucojum is one of the daintiest and prettiest of tiny blooms and the crocus also delight.

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

Autumn crocus (species unknown) with cyclamen hederafolium

The rockery is not what I would call low maintenance. The more time I put into it, the better it looks. In spring I completely replaced the soil in maybe a dozen pockets in my efforts to eradicate the pretty but invasive Geissorhiza aspera. I do not lie when I tell you that we have battling it for well over 25 years, hence my extreme action in replacing the soil in the worst affected areas. We have to be vigilant on weeds, slugs, snails, narcissi fly and weevils. I wire brush the rocks from time to time to stop the moss growth from hiding their shapes. There is plenty there to keep me busy in my dotage and, with the raised beds, I can do a lot of it sitting on a stool. Sometimes it is the detail and the little pictures in the garden that delight.

024First published in the NZ Gardener April edition and reprinted here with their permission. 

Autumn bulbs

While late winter and spring are the peak seasons for the many of the bulbs, the lesser known autumn flowering varieties offer fresh seasonal delight at a time when many flowering plants have finished or are passing over. The triggers for these bulbs are a drop in temperature, declining day length and summer rain. They are neither easily available nor widely grown but that may be a chicken or egg situation because many of them are not difficult or touchy.

Moraea polystachya - the autumn flowering peacock iris

Moraea polystachya – the autumn flowering peacock iris

The bulb that gives us the longest flowering season of all at this time of the year is the lovely lilac- blue, autumn Moraea polystachya from South Africa. Each flower is a dainty iris and while individual blooms are brief, new ones open down the stem for many weeks on end, stretching into months. The foliage is fine and light and the wiry flower stems can reach about 50 cm high. It grows from corms and will gently seed down without becoming an undesirable weed. It is particularly attractive popping up in cracks between pavers or on the edges of paths. The problem will be sourcing corms to buy. If you see one growing in somebody else’s garden, ask for seed which is easily raised and should flower in its third year.

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus

Haemanthus coccineus is most valued for its striking winter foliage – enormous, fleshy leaves which lie flat to the ground, giving the plant its common name of elephant ears. But in early autumn, up pop bristly red flowers looking somewhat like a dish brush head. In fact they are a large cluster of red stamens, each tipped with a generous amount of golden pollen and all encased in six petals that almost resemble a plastic cup. Flowering is triggered by rain and comes just before the new foliage starts to emerge. Plants need excellent drainage and some protection from heavy frosts but will thrive in semi shade.

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicum autumnale

Colchicums are often referred to as autumn crocus, but they are only distant relatives at best and are generally much larger flowered toughies that are easy to grow. Most are so vigorous that they can be established in grass for the meadow look, but keep them away from mown areas because the foliage hangs on right through to spring. Each flower is a cup with six petals and while not long lived, a bulb can put up a succession of blooms. It flowers well before the foliage appears. Most colchicums hail from Europe and are in lilac pink to purple shades. For those who prefer all their flowers in white, there is a white form available but purists may prefer to stay with the dominant colours of the European meadows. The major drawback to the colchicums is that the foliage takes such a long time to die off that it can have a protracted scruffy period but it does at least have lush foliage in the bare winter months.

Nerines sarniensis hybrids

Nerines sarniensis hybrids

Despite their common name of the “Guernsey lily”, nerines hail from South Africa. While there are over 30 different species, the ones most widely available include N. fothergillii (scarlet flowers often referred to as the ‘spider lily’), N. bowdenii (late season flowering, sugar pink with long stems) and N. sarniensis hybrids. It is the hybrids that bring the larger flowers in desirable colours which can range from smoky hues, purple, salmon apricot and across the whole spectrum of shades associated with pink and red. There are white cultivars though I would have to say that we have never found a good pure white form which performs well. All make excellent cut flowers and have a long record of use in floristry.

Nerines have large bulbs which like to sit half in the soil and half baking in the sun. They will struggle in very cold, wet conditions and won’t flower in the shade.

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium

Cyclamen hederafolium is one of the star performers for us, opening its first flowers as early as January and continuing through late summer to peak in autumn. Once the flowering is finished, the lovely heart shaped dark green leaves which are lightly marbled in silver remain a feature through winter. Flowers vary in colour from pure white, pale pink to dark pink, though not on the same tuber. As long as the tuber does not rot out, it can get very large over time – at least as big as a bread and butter plate. It is best nestled into the soil, as opposed to buried beneath. In C. hederafolium, the roots, flower stems and leaves all sprout afresh each year from the top of the tuber so you need to plant it the right way up. It will grow in full sun through semi shade to woodland conditions of high shade and, when happy, it will seed down over time and naturalise – as long as you don’t garden around it with weed spray. Good drainage is the key.

The species cyclamen have a delicate charm which has long gone from the pot hybrids sold as indoor plants. C. hederafolium is the easiest and most reliable of the species. There is nothing rare about it, except I failed to find anybody selling it this season. It is easy to raise from seed if you know of somebody with a plant. Harvest the seed in late spring and sow it in a pot or tray immediately. It can reach flowering size in as little as 18 months.

Ornamental oxalis

Ornamental oxalis

Oxalis. Spare a thought for the poor, maligned oxalis family which gets dismissed out of hand because of a few bad eggs. Call them by their romantic common name of wood sorrel if it makes you feel better. There are over 800 members of the family and by no means are they all invasive weeds. Neither are they all worthwhile garden plants either, but some of them are autumn stars for us. All oxalis need full sun because they only open their flowers in the bright light. If you remain nervous about them, plant them in wide, shallow pots and place them on sunny steps to give you a seasonal display. When you repot them after a year, you can see clearly which ones show invasive potential because they will have formed multitudes of babies. These ones are best kept in pots forever but others are perfectly garden safe.

Over the years, we gathered up maybe 30 different oxalis species and you can often find dry bulbs of different ones offered for sale on Trade Me. Some have very short flowering seasons and I am not sure it is worth my time to repot them each year. Others are exceptionally good. The best of all is O. purpurea alba. It has an abundance of very large, glistening pure white flowers with a golden centre and it flowers over a very long period. The foliage is a flat mat of green, slightly hairy, clover-like leaves. We have had it in the garden here for decades and it has never been badly behaved or shown invasive tendencies. There are other forms of O. purpurea with pink flowers and with burgundy red foliage (O. purpurea ‘Nigrescens’). While these are also very showy, they can be a bit too rampant and are best kept in pots.

Other personal favourites are O. massoniana (feathery foliage and masses of pretty flowers in apricot with a yellow eye), O. hirta lavender and the sunny yellow O.luteola. There are no blue or green flowered oxalis, as far as I know, but they come in pretty much every other colour.

Other autumn flowering bulbs which we value, but which will be even harder to source are Lycoris aurea (which looks like a golden nerine), Rhodophiala bifida and some of the autumnal tricyrtus, particularly T. macrantha.

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The Guernsey Lily 

Guernsey’s only claim to nerines is cut flower production. The exact method of arrival to the Channel Islands is unknown but there are records of N. sarniensis growing, and presumably flowering, in Paris as early as 1630. By the 1800s, Guernsey already had a flower export trade in full swing and was sending nerines to England. The local folklore version, laying claim to the nerine, has charm.

The Guernsey lily folk tale from the Visit Guernsey website:

Legend holds that a handsome fairy prince met and fell madly in love with Michelle de Garis, a beautiful Guernsey girl. Michelle left her cottage early one morning to see to her cows. As she entered the meadow, she was surprised to find a young man asleep on the grass. He had a particularly small stature, was finely proportioned, and remarkably handsome.

Michelle stood and admired the small man dressed in green and with bow and arrow. When he awoke he told Michelle that he was a fairy prince from England and asked for her hand in marriage, as they had both instantly fallen in love. She agreed but as they headed to Fairyland she asked that she leave a token to reassure her family. The prince gave her a bulb, which she planted.

Michelle’s mother later discovered a beautiful flower above Vazon bay, on the west coast of Guernsey. It was the colour of Michelle’s shawl and sprinkled with elfin gold – the Guernsey lily.

Sometime later on, many fairy men came from Fairyland, entranced by Michelle’s beauty and looking for a Guernsey girl of their own. They asked that Guernseymen gave up their wives and daughters, which ended in many battles between the fairies and Guernseymen. The Rouge Rue (Red Road) is said to have been named after a particularly fierce battle.

First published in the May issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Plant Collector: Nerine pudica

Nerine pudica

Nerine pudica

How pretty is little pudica? This is the first season I have seen it flower and it is a delight. The pointed bells are mainly white with a pink stripe down the centre of each petal and each stem has up to six flowers on it. It is a nerine which makes it a bulb, but it is a much smaller one than the more common sarniensis and bowdenii types. The foliage is also much finer and narrower. It looks more a mondo grass or liriope leaf.

N. pudica is a species, hailing from the western side of South Africa. The ever-useful reference “Bulbs for NZ Gardeners and Collectors” by Terry Hatch and Jack Hobbs tells me that it is one of the original parents of many of the modern hybrids. While showy hybrids have their place, there is often a simple charm in the original species. The ones in the photograph are still in pots. It will take several years before we can comment on how reliable they are as garden plants in the rockery but the requirements are the same as for other nerines – excellent drainage and full sun. I am hoping they will do well because it makes a pretty addition to the autumn bulb display.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

At the end of a golden summer come the autumn bulbs

Colchicums, not autumn crocus

Colchicums, not autumn crocus

Autumn. It is indubitably autumn. I can no longer pretend it is just the summer slowly waning and that winter is still a long way off. For most people, autumn is synonymous with leaves colouring to fiery hues.

However those of us in coastal areas may carry that mental image but the reality can fall well short. Inland areas get much better autumn colour because the nights cool down more rapidly and it is the sharp drop in temperatures which triggers the colouring response in most deciduous plants as much as the declining day length. The moderating effect of the sea means we drift far more slowly between seasons and the leaves are inclined to turn brown and fall, skipping much of the colouring process.

Our extensive use of evergreen plants in this country also mitigates against fantastic mass displays of autumn colour. Our native plants are all evergreen and in a generally benign gardening climate, we tend to favour evergreen exotics as well. I have met many gardeners who shun deciduous plants because they are allegedly messy and lack winter interest, which has always seemed a bit myopic to me. We are never going to rival countries like Canada with its native maples when it comes to a mass blaze of autumn tones.

It is the autumn bulbs that signal the change in season for me. There are so many pretty seasonal flowers coming through now. These are triggered into bloom by a drop in temperature, declining day length and some by late summer rain – don’t laugh at that last one.

The charm of carpets of Cyclamen hederfolium

The charm of carpets of Cyclamen hederfolium

Gardeners in this country tend to focus on the spring bulbs – from the early snowdrops through the snowflakes, bluebells, tulips, daffodils, anemones and ranunculus. These are readily available and marketed widely. They also flower at a time when the majority of trees and shrubs are blossoming forth.

The autumn bulbs have never captured the market in the same manner yet they bring freshness to the garden at a time when many plants are looking tired or passing over. I find them a wonderful antidote to the autumnal despondency of declining day length. There they are, all pretty and perky, just coming into their prime.

I often feature selected autumn bulbs in Plant Collector because this is their time to shine. As I wander around the garden, I see carpets of Cyclamen hederafolium (flowers only so far – the leaves have yet to appear) and taller spires of the autumn peacock iris, Moraea polystachya, which is inclined to seed itself around a little. This lovely lilac moraea has one of the longest flowering seasons of any bulb I know. The common old belladonnas are already passing over but I enjoy their blowsy display while it lasts. We use them in less tamed areas on the road verge.

Moraea polystachya - the autumn flowering peacock iris

Moraea polystachya – the autumn flowering peacock iris

Over the years, I have waged a campaign to convince people of the merits of the ornamental oxalis, many of which are autumn stars. Call them by their common overseas name of wood sorrel, if the mere mention of oxalis makes you shudder. The range of different species is huge. By no means are all of them nasty weeds and many are not the slightest bit invasive. We have them flowering in white, yellow, apricot bicolour, a whole range of pinks, lilac, lavender and even crimson. Some are perfectly garden-safe. I can vouch for their good behaviour after decades in the garden here. Others I keep in pots – preferably wide, shallow pots for best display.

We are big fans of the Nerine sarniensis hybrids

We are big fans of the Nerine sarniensis hybrids

And nerines are the major feature of our autumn rockery. The majority of these are sarniensis hybrids with big heads of flowers. By no means are all of them the common red of Nerine fothergillii or the strong growing pink Nerine bowdenii which comes later in the season. We have some lovely smoky tones, reds deepening to violet hues, a remarkable lolly pink – the colour of a highlighter felt pen, two tone sugar candy and even heading to apricot. Nerines are renowned as a good cut flower but I never cut them. There is only one stem per bulb and I would rather admire them in the garden than indoors.

Then there are the bold colchicums which, contrary to popular belief, are not autumn crocus but certainly put on a splendid show with a succession of flowers from each corm. You have to go a long way back in the botanical family tree to get any relationship between colchicums and the proper autumn crocus. The latter is a much more delicate and transient performer whose flowers appear at the same time as its foliage. Currently, we are enjoying both in bloom.

Some bulbs are quite transient in flower but no less delightful for all that. If I am ever forced by declining health and aged frailty to trade down from a large garden, I can see that it would bulbs that I would chose to grow. I love the way they mark the seasons and how there can always be a different one coming into its time to star.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.