Climate-Wise Spring Bulbs

At this time of year, if you make a visit to the nursery you will be greeted with pictures, signs, boxes and bins of spring blooming bulbs. Tulips, crocuses, hyacinths, daffodils, and narcissus bulbs are surrounded by displays of special bulb fertilizer and special tools for planting bulbs.

These are the spring bulbs I grew up with on the East Coast, and they were wonderful in our gardens, coming back more strongly year after year, and making the first days and weeks of snowmelt magical.

But here in California some of these bulbs are not really at home. Tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses, for example, need a frosty winter to bloom successfully. Here in our mild winter climate, those who really want to see these flowers in the spring must buy the bulbs early and chill them for 4-6 weeks in the refrigerator before planting in order to get a successful show. After they bloom, they must be dug up and discarded. Next year, they must be bought and refrigerated again. Daffodils and narcissus can sometimes naturalize in our climate, but the real gangbuster spring bulb shows come from bulbs which may be unfamiliar to garden traditionalists, bulbs which have their ancestry in climate zones similar to California’s rather than in Northern Europe.

  Watsonia borbonica.

Watsonia borbonica.

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Instead of crocuses, for the earliest little cheerful-faced flowers, consider planting Ipheion uniflorum or spring star flower from Argentina. This little beauty is already fully leafed out in established clumps in San Francisco gardens. In just a few weeks, it will be sporting cheerful little starry pale blue flowers, and it will continue blooming until late spring. Each year the clumps will increase, and it is easy to divide. Either use the extra bulbs to start new clumps, or give them to your friends. They will never stop thanking you for this hardy, reliable, charming plant.

Instead of tulips, for that large, dramatic, colorful effect, consider trying Sparaxis tricolor, or harlequin flower from South Africa. These bulbs grow their foliage during the winter months, and bloom over a long period in early spring with a vivid long-lasting show. Red, orange, yellow, pink and purple flowers are blotched and striped with contrasting colors. These plants will give you a “Wow” in your spring garden that will be repeated more and more in each succeeding year. Again, they are easy to divide, and you can either spread them around your garden, or give them to friends. This year, our Sparaxis at GFE needed protection from slug damage, so you might want to locate them somewhere in your garden that is unwatered during the summer months, to cut down on the slug population.

  Sparaxis tricolor.

Sparaxis tricolor.

Tall and stately, Watsonia borbonica is another gorgeous choice for a climate-appropriate bulb. Ours at GFE are already leafing out vigorously from last year’s clumps, and the flower stalks will form in the early spring and bloom in the late spring rising up to six feet above the border. Ours are all white, but there are also pink ones available. Again, these bulbs are so comfortable in our climate that they will form bigger clumps year after year.

Other bulb-forming plants which work perfectly in our mild, summer-dry climate include Chasmanthe, Calla lilies, Amaryllis belladonna or naked ladies, Montbretia, and Agapanthus or lily of the Nile. For detailed information on how to grow these bulbs, have a look in Pam Peirce’s wonderful book, Wildly Successful Plants for Northern California.

  Chasmanthe .

Chasmanthe.

All of these spring blooming bulbs are perfectly suited to our climate. They begin to grow leaves during the first rainy weeks of the year, bloom in turn, and as the end of our rainy season comes, they die down. You must let the leaves turn brown and die down naturally, while the plant stores its energy for the dormant season. Once the leaves have turned brown, you can cut them off and compost them. The plants will store the energy they gathered during their growing season deep in the ground in fat bulbs or corms, and lie dormant throughout our dry season, all ready to spring back into action when the rainy season returns. They need absolutely no summer irrigation, and they mix well in the garden with other summer-dry plants which bloom, or hold neat or colorful foliage through the summer. These bulbs shine in a border with plants like lavenders, leucadenderons, sages and native grasses which will fill the summer-dry border and please the eye while the spring blooming bulbs die down and rest.

These bulbs will form a bigger, more vigorous clump every year for many years, but eventually they will crowd themselves and begin to bloom less. When this happens, dig up the whole clump, choose the most promising looking bulbs to replant, and give away your extras. You will make life-long gardening friends if you introduce them to these wonderful bulbs.