Tag Archives: spring bulbs

When the detail brings delight, not the devil

Tulipa saxatilis and simple cream freesias in the rockery this week

Bulbs play a major role in our garden. We use a huge range of bulbs, many no longer available commercially. Some never were readily available. Very few of those we grow are the larger, modern hybrids which are generally what are on offer these days. We prefer the simpler style of the species or at least closer to the species.

Added to that, seventy years of intensive gardening across two generations has built up the numbers most satisfyingly. Most of our cultivated gardens have bulbs incorporated in the plantings. Or at least bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes to cover the range.


We have a fair few that are fleeting seasonal wonders in our climate but we just adjust our expectations. The cute erythroniums – dog’s tooth violets – are maybe a 10 day delight and can be taken out by untimely storms but that is just the way things are.

Meet Beryl. Narcissis ‘Beryl’ with cyclamen, nerines and even a Satyrium coriifolium in the bottom left corner

I don’t grow any in containers now although the same can not be said of Mark. His bulb collection is currently sitting in limbo for us all to see the scale as his inner sanctum – his Nova house – is currently being relocated. He hasn’t taken good care of them in recent times but he is determined to keep some of the rarer, touchier varieties alive. It is possible to maintain a more comprehensive bulb collection if you are willing to faff around with growing them in containers in controlled conditions. I am not so dedicated. My interest wanes if we can not grow them in garden conditions.

Gladiolus tristis popping up unexpectedly in our parking area

It is the random bulbs beyond the gardens that are currently bringing me pleasure. Some of these have been planted. Some have popped up from our nursery days. When trays of bulbs were being repotted, Mark had a strict rule that fresh potting mix was to be used (granulated bark was our chosen medium). Hygiene, he would explain. The old potting mix was spread around the place and at times it had seed or tiny bulbs within it. I am guessing this is how the Gladiolus tristis, a species gladiolus, came to be at the base of a cherry tree. I certainly don’t remember planting it there and I can’t recall it flowering before.

Ipheions at the base of an orange tree

When we plant bulbs beyond the cultivated garden areas, we try and select spots where they can establish in fairly undisturbed conditions. At the base of trees is good, as long as there is plenty of light. Around old tree stumps, on margins that don’t get mown often, or in little spots where we can walk past and be surprised to see them in bloom.

Trillium red with bluebells down in the park meadow
And trillium white with Lachenalia aloides tricolor and snowdrops to the right on the margins by a stump

We have rather too many bluebells now, to the point where I often dig out clumps to reduce overcrowding. The Spanish bluebells or the ones that are crosses between the vigorous Spanish and the more refined English species are definitely rampant, bordering on weeds. That sea of blue is very charming in their flowering season but sometimes it is the one seedling escape flowering bravely on its own that makes me smile as I pass.

The simplicity of a self-sown bluebell
Common old Lachenalia aloides where a tree stump used to be

It is both the transient nature and the detail that makes bulbs so interesting in a garden context. Far from simplifying our own garden as we age, the more we garden, the more we like to add fine detail. That is what keeps it interesting for us.

Bluebells and narcissi at the base of gum tree
Narcissus bulbocodium with bluebells

Plant Collector: Onixotis triqueta

Now Onixotis triquetra, no longer a dipidax

Now Onixotis triquetra, no longer a dipidax

It used to be a Dipidax and is still widely known under this name but I have never heard of a common name in this country. In its native habitat, the bulb wonderland of the Cape Province in South Africa, it is apparently sometimes called the waterflower, on account of its ability to grow in damp ground. In fact it will grow pretty well anywhere as long as there is reasonable sun.

At a quick glance as one passes by, the tall stems of many flowers look almost orchid-like but second glance will show you that they are closer to daisy-like with a dark eye. It flowers from late winter through spring but I see seed is forming already on these heads. The foliage is narrow and tallish, almost like a reed.

Onixotis are really easy bulbs to grow, though we fear they may have slightly invasive tendencies and prefer to keep them in designated areas. Seed is set freely and the bulbs themselves multiply readily so it is probably better not to have them growing through small shrubs or perennials.

Some bulbs have the weird ability to pull themselves down to greater depth in the soil, no matter what level you plant them at (others crowd themselves upwards). Onyxotis are burrowers so you often need to dig quite deeply if you want to lift them. Raised from seed, they reach flowering size in their second season.

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

The late spring bulbs

Left to right: Gladious carneus, a dainty allium, Romulea rosea, camassia, Phaedranassa cinerea, Stenomesson miniatum, Gesneria cardinalis, calanthe orchid, Albuca candadensis and spiloxene.

When spring bulbs are mentioned, most people think of daffodils, bluebells and tulips. But when they have been and gone and all that is left is the scruffy foliage, there are the late spring bulbs coming into flower. Most of these are less well known and certainly less celebrated in literature and art. For all that, they are often more interesting, maybe because they are unexpected.

We love bulbs here and with bulbs I include corms, rhizomes and tubers. More than any other type of plant, they seem to mark the passage of the seasons and to create the smaller, detailed pictures that add layers of interest to the garden. Maybe because the perennials and annuals are coming into their own at this time, the late spring bulbs are often ignored and therefore harder to source.

I headed out to the garden to see what was coming into flower. Discounting the earlier bulbs which are still flowering but well past their peak (veltheimias, the late lachenalias, Hippeastrum aulicum and the like), I found about 20 different types of bulbs coming into their own and that is by no means complete. There is little which is duller than endless lists and plant descriptions so I lined a number up for photographs.

Clockwise from top – Soloman Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum), tritonia, babiana, Satyrium odorum (orchid), rhodohypoxis, Watsonia brevifolia, tulbaghias – probably comminsii and possibly simmleri

I featured the rhodohypoxis in Plant Collector a fortnight ago. These are relatively common and form attractive carpets in pinks, whites and carmine red with their mass of star flowers. There is nothing rare or exclusive about Soloman Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) either. It was common in the gardens of grandparents and is perhaps undergoing a surge of discovery amongst newer generations of gardeners. It is particularly handy for semi shade positions and, after battling a near impenetrable mass of entangled rhizomes, I decided it may well have some merit as a natural stabiliser for an eroding bank. I will report back in three years about the success or otherwise of this venture but as it will grow pretty much on top of the ground and grip hard, I am optimistic. As a bonus, the foliage turns golden in autumn – an unexpected source of autumn colour for us.

Hippeastrum papilio

Hippeastrum papilio

For sheer exotica, it is hard to beat Hippeastrum papilio which is just opening. Papilio means butterfly though I think it is more orchid-like really. This is a spectacular bulb from Brazil which is offered for sale from time to time. It is more expensive than rare. We had to try a couple of different places in the garden before we found a spot where it was happy but we now have it thriving in open woodland conditions.

Scadoxus puniceus

Scadoxus puniceus

While on the big bulbs, Scadoxus puniceusis one of our showiest but I won’t dwell too long on it because it is rather too frost tender for inland areas and rare in this country. Its cousin, Scadoxus katherinae, is a better bet for frosty areas because it is dormant in winter and doesn’t start moving until spring, flowering in summer. Similarly, our love affair with the arisaema family (sometimes called snake’s head lilies though they aren’t lilies) is of limited value because our showiest ones are Mark’s hybrids which we have never sold so they can’t be seen anywhere but in our garden. Given time, we may put them on the market but that is a way off. Most of the arisaema family hide their flowers below the foliage but Mark has managed to breed with varieties to bring out the desirable trait of holding their flowers above the leaves, making them much showier as well as being easy garden plants. You may, however, find Arisaema speciosum which is easy to grow and Arisaema ringens is relatively common. If you have a bank that you look up to, the flowers are little more obvious without having to part the leaves to see them. We describe A. speciosum as the closest thing to a cobra you would want in the garden.

If you are getting frustrated trying to find more unusual plants, there are good reasons why. Many if not most of the specialist nurseries throughout the country have closed down over the last decade as have most mail order nurseries. Treasure the ones that are left because there are few new plant businesses opening. However, bulbs are perhaps a little easier than trees and shrubs and I occasionally look at the bulbs section of Trade Me and see some interesting and less common material offered for sale there. Beyond that, you may have to start haunting your local horticultural society or keen gardening groups where there are likely to be one or two people who know their bulbs from their onions.

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

Plant Collector: Rhodohypoxis

Pretty little rhodohypoxis - Ruth (white), Susan (pink), Albrighton (dark)

Pretty little rhodohypoxis – Ruth (white), Susan (pink), Albrighton (dark)

As the peak time for spring bulbs passes over, the South African rhodohypoxis come into their own. These are cracker little plants, forming a colourful carpet in well drained, sunny conditions. They are also great in wide, shallow bowls or underplanting shrubs in containers, as illustrated. Their fresh growth is triggered by autumn rains and they have a long flowering season from mid spring into early summer, as long as they don’t dry out. The foliage is short and grassy and hangs around unobtrusively until autumn when the plant goes dormant for a brief time.

There are a mass of different named rhodohypoxis, though most are just selections of R. baurii. Essentially they come in sugar pink, deep pink to red, white, bicoloured variations and occasional double forms. They are really easy to grow and multiply up most satisfyingly, with one proviso. The rhizomes are tiny and dark brown – sometimes not unlike the clawed ranunculus and other times just small, brown lumps. This means they are alarming anonymous when dormant and I am sure that is when most people forget where they are and either flay them round when weeding or plant something on top of them. If in doubt, plant them in a pot and sink the whole pot in the garden while you build up numbers.

With a rhodohypoxis expert staying here this week, we had a discussion on whether these bulbs are technically tubers, corms or rhizomes. The internet uses all terms interchangeably. The decision came down fair and square on rhizome status.

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

Plant Collector: Erythronium revolutum

The transient delight of dogs tooth violets - Erythronium revolutum

The transient delight of dogs tooth violets – Erythronium revolutum

Of all the fleeting seasonal delights, the dogs tooth violets or erythroniums might take the award for ephemera. They are so pretty and dainty and they are here today and gone pretty soon after. We probably only get ten days out of them in flower and a bad bout of weather can knock the display for the year. But we still get a great deal of pleasure from them. The flowers are like nodding hats while the compact foliage is often gently mottled or marbled in green and maroon.

There are about 20 different species, all in the Liliaceae family, but some of them just won’t perform in our climate. Many prefer cooler conditions and dry summers. As far as we know, what we have are mainly seed raised E. revolutum which is native to the west coast of USA. They thrive in humus rich conditions on woodland margins where the soil stays moist and there are reasonable light levels. The corms are interesting, being long and narrow and alarmingly easy to snap in two when disturbed. They find their own depth, often burrowing down quite deep, out of harm’s way.

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