Spring Blooming Bulbs for Bay Area Climate Zones

Fairy wand, harlequin flower, bugle lily, who wouldn’t want to see flowers with such magical names? They are all blooming right now at Garden for the Environment, a public, educational garden located at 7th Avenue and Lawton Street. 

Bugle Lily at GFE.

Bugle Lily at GFE.

For many traditional gardeners, the springtime bloom of tulips and crocuses is an annual ritual of garden culture. These garden favorites do not bloom without a winter chill which the Bay Area climate cannot offer. So gardeners like myself, entranced with these nostalgia-laden flowers, buy new bulbs each year. We refrigerate them for four to six weeks and plant them out when our soils have cooled in late November and December. Next spring, we are rewarded with fabulous bursts of color in dramatic flowerbeds. Then we dig the bulbs up, discard them in the green bin in April and May, and wait for August when the next year’s bulb catalog arrives, tempting us to make lists and designs for our next outrageous bulb order.

It’s too much to expect us to give up our tulips and crocuses “cold turkey.” Yet, this annual planting spree followed by throwing out the bulbs can’t last in a world were sustainability is the new byword. That’s why we need a substitute: beautiful, graceful spring flowering bulbs which are suited to our climate so that they can naturalize, returning year after year. There are many choices. Some, like calla lilies and agapanthus are relatively well known, even over-used or weedy. Some, like daffodils and bearded irises, are fairly well-known to thrive in Bay Area gardens. But some of the climate-appropriate, drought-tolerant bulbs from around the world are relatively unknown.

A favorite performer here at Garden for the Environment is Sparaxis tricolor, or harlequin flower, originally from South Africa out of a climate zone similar to the Bay Area. These brilliantly colored and beautifully streaked flowers open in March, and are still making a splash in the drought tolerance demonstration bed at the South end of the garden. Enter the garden by the South gate and walk straight ahead. On your right Sparaxis is performing in a drift of orange, red, pink, and ivory, while on your left the orange daisies of Arctotis ‘Pumpkin Pie’ and the lavender daisies of the California native Erigeron glaucus echo their tones. At crocus time, late winter/very early Spring, this same bed sports the pale blue flowers from bulbs of Ipheion uniflorum, or spring star flower, which bloom over a long period to promise the coming end of winter. Ixia maculata (African corn lily), the star of the bulb show in late spring, hasn’t started blooming yet, but its generous buds promise May flowers.

Sparaxis tricolor  at GFE

Sparaxis tricolor at GFE

Outside the south gate, on either side of the border, you can see the tall sentinels of Watsonia borbonica (bugle lily) standing at attention with graceful spikes of white flowers. Last summer we divided an old, overgrown clump of Watsonia and planted ten new clumps from one old one. Like many other bulbing plants which are evolved for a climate like ours, these lovely blossoms return in greater force every year, so before you know it, instead of buying bulbs, you are giving them away to your friends and neighbors.

One of my favorite spring bulbs at GFE is Dierama pulcherrimum, blooming now in the southern section of the 7th Avenue border. These delicate flowers look like grasses when the buds first emerge. Then each bud expands into a pendant white flower so graceful that it earns its common name, fairy wands. (Dierama actually comes from what botanists call a corm, not a bulb, as do Watsonia and Sparaxis.)

All the bulbs (and corms) mentioned here will die back after blooming, and can be left undisturbed in unwatered areas of the garden to bloom even more gloriously the following year. When designing a border, it is a good idea to interplant clumps of these bulbs with other drought tolerant perennials or shrubs which will be growing and budding up just as the spring bloomers are finishing. Yarrows, sages, coreopsis and other daisy family relatives, and hollyhock relatives such as Anisodontea or Lavatera which bloom in summer, are some of the many good choices to fill in after the bulbs have finished their spring fling.

Please come see the beautiful, climate appropriate and drought tolerant spring bulbs blooming at GFE. We hope you fall in love with them too, and can find a spot in your garden beds to try these alternatives to yearly replanting of crocuses and tulips.

Arctotis  at GFE.

Arctotis at GFE.