Bold bulbs

Sunday, 01 September 2013

My bunch of bold bulbs

I love the dainty little bulbs that appear in late winter and early spring: such as creamy Freesia, brightly coloured Sparaxis and pretty blue starflowers - which all naturalise in my Sydney garden. But what I find quite stunning at this time of year are the bold bulbs: those with a really flamboyant presence. I picked a few of these from my garden this week to show to some keen gardeners and I enjoyed the bunch at home for a number of days.

Scadoxus puniceus

The boldest of all is probably the paintbrush lily (Scadoxus puniceus). It arises from the ground as a red snout, which gradually transforms into a huge inflorescence that starts out looking a bit like a waratah and ends up resembling an enormous red brush with luminescent orange bristles on a 45 cm stem. The display lasts for many weeks. Surprisingly, this bulb grows well in a part-shaded position. It belongs to the Amaryllidaceae family, which contains a number of excellent bulbs for our climate.

Clivia x cyrtanthiflora

I pair my paintbrush lilies with a big clump of bright orange Clivia miniata - another showy member of the Amaryllidaceae family - which also enjoys a shaded spot. I look forward to this combination every year. Earlier this year, I was given a clump of Clivia x cyrtanthiflora (ht 60 cm) - a hybrid between Clivia miniata and Clivia nobilis with pale to medium orange flowers in large clusters of narrow, pendulous blooms.

Hippeastrum papilio

Yet another member of the Amaryllidaceae family with standout blooms is Hippeastrum papilio, sometimes known as the butterfly amaryllis, which is just coming into flower now. This bulb has huge white flowers with striking burgundy striped markings and a tinge of lime. I obtained mine as offsets from a friend and originally grew them in a pot. Last year, I learned that if they are planted in a sunny spot in the ground, they will multiply to form an impressive clump. Mine have certainly enjoyed being planted out in the garden, and I have four or five flower spikes coming up.

Veltheimia bracteata

Another unusual bulb with a dramatic flower at the moment is Veltheimia bracteata, sometimes known as the forest lily. Its bloom is a dense cluster of tubular flowers in an interesting shade of dusky pink on a stem to 60 cm, looking rather like a Kniphofia. It grows in semi-shade or shade, in humus-rich, well-drained soil.

Cymbidium orchid in the garden of my sister Holly in Sydney

Other ornate bulb-like plants in flower now are various orchids. Cymbidium orchids bloom over an extended period and have myriad shapes and colours. For good flowering, they need fortnightly fertilising with proper orchid food throughout the year. There are two sorts of food: one for growth after flowering and a different one from January onwards as the flower spikes are initiated. Regular watering is also important, especially in the warmer months; avoid overwatering in winter. Plenty of sun is also very important, though it's best to avoid direct sunlight on hot summer afternoons. Some people put them in a part-shaded position from September to May (such as under deciduous trees) and then full sun the rest of the year. Native orchids are also blooming: Dendrobium speciosum is sometimes called the king orchid or rock orchid. It forms large clumps, with thick 'pseudobulbs' and leathery leaves. The showy racemes clustered with small perfumed flowers range in hue from white to creamy yellow. To see them in the bush in early spring is a wonderful spectacle. This orchid is epiphytic and can be grown on rocks or on trees, or else in pots. Give them water, especially in summer, and some fertiliser occasionally. They need sun to promote best flowering.