Plant a Kaleidoscope of South African Bulbs

Sparaxis (Image by KENPEI)

Written by Nan Sterman

I always caution gardeners in California and other hot, dry summer areas not to plant in summer. Plants just don’t adapt very well when it is so hot. Instead, it is better to plan in summer and plant in winter.

That said, there are a few groups of plants are best planted now, one of which is the South African bulbs. These plants adapt to their hot, dry native habitats by dropping their leaves and sleeping through summer. That means, that summer is the best time for bulb growers to dig them and ship them, whether to the store or to your door. In fact, mid-July to September is the only time you’ll find South African bulbs for sale on a large scale.

Which bulbs am I referring to? Glad you asked. There are dozens of South African bulbs that are beautiful, fantastic, easy garden plants. In frost-free climates, they can stay in the ground year-round, as long as they don’t get too much water in summer.

Their colors, shapes and sizes are fantastic. Plant them now, and you’ll have a kaleidoscope come spring. Here are a few to start with. They all prefer full sun, fairly well draining soil, are drought tolerant, and best planted now, while bulbs are dormant:

Watsonia fulgens (Image by Stan Shebs)

Bugle lily

Bugle lilies (Watsonia spp.) make large clumps of sword-shaped leaves, two to four feet tall. Flowers form on long, stalks, and typically in shades of orange, salmon, coral, clear pink, raspberry, or white. They make excellent cut flowers. These are wonderful pass-around plants, too. After the foliage fades in summer, dig up too large clumps and share your spares.

Harlequin flower

Harlequin flowers (Sparaxis  spp.) are smaller stand about a foot tall. Flower stalks are topped in single, star-shaped, almost cupped flowers in yellow, orange, or deep cherry, with a contrasting “flare” at the base of each petal. Once established, harlequin flower spread by seed as well as by making new bulbs. So, a few bulbs soon naturalize. They are easy to thin, but don’t throw away the spares. Share with a friend or plant elsewhere in the garden. Harlequin flowers bloom earlier than bugle lilies.

Gladiolus tristis (Image by Andrew Massyn)

Yellow Marsh Afrikaner

The yellow marsh Afrikaner (Gladiolus tristis) has narrow, almost grass-like leaves that stand about eighteen inches tall. Its yellow-ivory blooms are subtle but beautiful. They bloom as early as January in my San Diego area garden. In the late afternoon, they release a sweet scent lovelier than any perfume.

Sword lily 

Sword lily (Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus) has a larger stature than its cousin the Afrikaner. Its broad, green blades stand nearly two feet tall. Blooms are larger and hot pink. Not so hot to send you running for sunglasses, but hot enough to be the star attraction during their bloom. Sword lily bloom begins just as yellow marsh Afrikaner fades.

Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus (Image by Meneerke Bloem)

How to grow

Growing these bulbs could not be easier. Plant in 3’s, 5’s, or other odd number clusters. Dig a wide hole, deep enough for the bulb to sit a few inches below soil level. Allow several inches between bulbs, more for larger bulbs. Mix a small amount of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, a sprinkling of bone meal, and a handful of Black Gold Earthworm Castings into the hole. Place each bulb root side down. The flat end is the root end, the pointed end is the shoot end. Cover with soil and water to settle the dirt around the bulb.

As the days grow shorter in October you’ll notice bright green spears poking up through the ground. Those are your new bulbs reaching for the sky. They’ll keep growing until, one by one, each patch of bulbs bursts open in its amazing, colorful glory.

Once flowers fade, cut the stalks to the ground but not the foliage. While leaves are green, they make energy to store in the bulb in preparation for next year’s bloom. If you cut the leaves off before that process is done, your bulbs will likely die.

On-line Bulb Sources:

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