Uncommon Summer Bulbs

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Purple-leaved Eucomis plants sprouting through golden sedum.

By July Hays

Familiar summer-blooming bulbs, such as lilies, crocosmias, dahlias, gladiolas, cannas, callas and tuberous begonias, are something we gardeners all try to grow at some point or another in our quest for knowledge and competence.  Each of these plant groups is a study in itself, subject of countless books and articles, and the consuming enthusiasm of at least one of our friends.  Yet, farther back in the bulb catalog, usually after page 38, or deep in the garden center bins, are to be found the inexplicable and the quirky, the novel, the bizarre: Uncommon Summer Bulbs.

I first ventured into this uncharted territory when I bought  a mixture of "Gladiolus nanus" advertised in a bulb catalog as hardy glads.  Planting them in a sunny, gravelly spot in April, I was thrilled two months later as they began to bloom.  My favorites had lipstick markings on their upper petals, in pink ('Elvira') and white ('Nymph').  There were some salmon colored ones, a white, a few pale yellow, and quite a few sharp red-orange flowers with a thin white edge.  That last one was 'Atom' and it quickly dominated.  It multiplied so fast that another blooming occured that summer, all of it 'Atom'.  The next summer, only 'Atom' was to be seen.  Need I say that "Gladiolus nanus" is a catch-all name for many hybrids of small, graceful species of these African plants.  I have bought only named varieties since then, and found them to be long-lived and carefree.   They will bloom in part shade as well as in full sun, although they are more upright in sun (to about 20 inches).  Not having to lift them in winter is great, but the real reward is in their refined line and tasteful beauty.

Perhaps the end of 'Atom' should be mentioned.  I dug it out of the gravel border as it began to sidle into the sidalceas.  Since I am fond of orange colors, I planted the corms in a 15 gallon tree pot, but by the end of the growing season, they had crowded themselves into a kind of stupor, and hardly bloomed the following year.   I composted what was left in a black plastic bag as I was afraid they would revive in the compost pile.

Having survived my first encounter with the Uncommon Summer Bulbs, I was emboldened to try other offerings from the back bins.  Not all have turned out successfully, but it is the adventure that keeps us young, right?  Let me entice you with some of the choices out there. 

Two more from the ranks of Gladioli are Gladiolus dalenii (until recently G. primulinus) and Gladiolus callianthus ''Murielae' (until recently Acidanthera bicolor var. Murielae).  The first might be called the hooded glad, as the center upper petal comes forward to shelter the throat.  Old House Gardens has an apricot colored one called 'Boone' and a soft yellow one they call 'Carolina Primrose,' both about three feet tall.  These were found at old home sites in North Carolina, and the NC nursery, Plant Delights, has others found in the same way-obviously it is able to take care of itself in zone 7!   The second plant is often called the Abyssinian Sword Lily.  Reaching three to four feet, it blooms in late October for me, with an exquisitely scented, flat white blossom with maroon markings at the center.  It is lovely, but because it needs a long, long growing season, it hasn't time to build new corms before winter comes here.  I faithfully buy more each spring to grow in pots because I find its fragrance so touching.

Many of the Uncommon Summer Bulbs need full sun and good drainage.  After all, formation of a bulb implies that moisture and nutrients are not available to the plant when needed.  Many of the summer-blooming bulbs are native to the Middle East, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, Mexico and other droughty places.   Finding suitable conditions in the Pacific Northwest garden can be the focus of much ingenuity.  Those of us living on glacial moraines have the ideal drainage, but full sun is elusive. The spot where driveway and sidewalk meet may answer, or the junction of house and walkway.  Pots may be resorted to.

Tigridia pavonia  (Mexican Shell Flower). Full sun, good drainage. The thin, small crocosmia-like leaves don't come up until the soil warms in late spring.  By mid-July the surprising blooms start to open: three-petaled, brilliant pink, orange, yellow and cream affairs, with a leopard-spotted center containing three more small petals.  The construction seems somewhat floppy and arbitrary, but it only has to last one day.  Next morning another flower opens.  The flower stem never seems to have very many buds on it, but buds must grow even while the flowers are opening, since the color spectacle continues well into August.  The plant height is 12 to15 inches. If the site bakes in the sun and drainage is good in winter, they will return.  Just don't panic when they don't appear in spring until the soil warmth matches their memories of the Mexican homeland.

Hippeastrum x johnsonii (St. Joseph's Lily).  Sun, good drainage. The first hybrid amaryllis (1799), hardy in zone 7, easier to grow in the garden than in a pot.  Narrower petals than the Dutch Amaryllis we buy at Christmastime, but a good, bright red flower with a white center star and a spicy scent.  Blooms in May-June, about 20 inches tall.

Zephyranthes (Rain Lily).  Sun. These members of the amaryllis family sounds as though they would love it here!  The rain lilies are supposed to come up and bloom almost overnight when it rains. This is just what Z. candida, from "the banks of the Rio de la Plata" (Argentina/Uruguay) does, forming sheets of white stars in early fall.  It is hardy in zone 7, and only a few inches tall. Drainage is not an issue for Z. candida, as it is often found in swampy ground.  Z. grandiflora is the pink rain lily, which blooms most heavily in early summer, then responds to watering during the summer.  It is six to ten inches tall and hardy to zone 8.  It needs good drainage, and does well in pots.  There are many other kinds of rain lilies, all worth trying for their ground hugging color.

Eucomis (Pineapple Lily).  Sun, moist soil that must drain well in winter.  This South African plant has a tropical look, with beautiful, glossy, wide leaves that form a substantial rosette. It makes an exclamation in the border, or a good subject for a special pot.  E. comosa  (zone 8, 20 to 30 inches tall) has either white or pink flowers, stacked in a fat spike with a tuffet of leaves on top, like a pineapple. It often has purple spotted stems, and in the form 'Sparkling Burgundy' the leaves emerge in spring a thrilling dark purple.  They retain a distinct purple cast to their green all summer.  E. bicolor (zone 8, 24 inches tall) has fascinating green flowers with purple edges.  E. autumnalis 'White Dwarf' (zone 7, 12 to15 inches tall) is a very nice white one.  

Nerine bowdenii  Sun, good drainage.  Another zone 8 South African bulb that is planted in spring but doesn't do anything but bake in the sun all summer.  In October, up come flower buds, which rise 20 inches or so, topped with big clusters of spidery flowers, hot pink or white.   Then their narrow, strap-like leaves come out.  In a mild winter they are evergreen, and in early summer these dry off, leaving the bulbs to bake as before. It should be noted that, with good drainage, they can take summer irrigation and may stay evergreen through the summer.  If you can't find the right spot to plant them, they do well in pots.  They also make great cut flowers.

Hymenocallis x festalis (Peruvian Daffodil or Spider Lily).  Sun or a little shade, rich garden soil, hardy in zone 8 with winter mulch.  Another amaryllid from South America, with glossy strap-like leaves.  Other Hymenocallis species are natives of the southern U.S., Central and South America, and it must be startling to see them in the wild, with their central disk surrounded by long, curling filaments of petal.  This is an easy plant to grow, either in a warm spot or in a pot.  They appreciate being well-watered (some species are marginal aquatics).  Their white, spidery flowers come on in August.  

This is just a taste of what is available among Uncommon Spring Bulbs this year.  Search through the bulb displays at your garden center, and look at catalogs, either on-line or mail-order, such as Old House Gardens, Brent and Becky's Bulbs, Plant Delights Nursery and Yucca-Do Nursery.  You will see plants you never dreamed of, odd, brash and mysterious.  Go on, give them a try!

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