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.
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.
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.
(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
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.
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
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
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
(some species are marginal aquatics).
Their white, spidery flowers come on in August.
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