November bulbs

Sunday, 06 November 2011

Zephyranthes grandiflora

The foliage of all my spring-flowering bulbs is now looking rather tatty and dishevelled; the lovely flowers now just a fading memory. We need to let the foliage die down naturally so that the bulbs can gain sustenance for next year's bloom, however unsightly the ratty brown leaves look just now. It is useful to give them some foliar fertiliser to enhance the process. Despite their short flowering season, bulbs really do bring a fresh note to gardens, and often their blooms have an amazing form and brilliant colour, unmatched by most other plants. Luckily, there are a few bulbs that flower in November to distract us from the sorry sight of the earlier bloomers' demise. One of my favourites is the pretty pink rain lily or 'crocus' (Zephyranthes grandiflora, ht 20-30 cm), with its fleshy pink flowers atop short stems amidst its grassy foliage. The more commonly known white form (Zephyranthes candida) is an autumn bloomer, but like the pink one, seems to respond to rainfalls by flowering, so there are often several flushes of bloom. The welcome rain this week was followed by my first pink rain lily of the season, and these will continue, on and off, until February. It hails from Mexico and Guatemala. Although sometimes called a crocus, it is actually a member of the Amaryllidaceae family of plants, which do so well in our Sydney climate. It multiplies to form a good clump; all of mine came from a single pot given to me many decades ago from a South Coast garden.

Sprekelia formosissima

Another lovely and unusual member of the Amaryllidaceae family which has just come into bloom is the Jacobean lily (Sprekelia formosissima, ht 30-45 cm) and which is also from Mexico and Guatemala. This is the first year I have had this bulb in bloom and I am enjoying admiring its brilliant red, narrow-petalled formation, with the appearance of an exotic porcelain orchid. Its common name comes from the flower's resemblance to the red cross of the Spanish order of St Jacob of Calatrava. The friend who gave it to me grew hers in a pot, and it flowered very well. I have put mine in a sunny garden bed, with the necks of the bulbs above soil level; like many bulbs in this family, it prefers to be kept fairly dry when it is dormant in autumn and winter. It should be divided only when it is very congested; this is best done in autumn.

Albuca altissima

My next November bulb also has an intriguing form, resembling a sort of floral candelabra, and belongs to the Hyacinthaceae family of plants. It is Albuca altissima, ht to 80 cm, from South Africa), with a profusion of unusual green-striped white flowers: the outer three tepals flare out around the cluster of the inner tepals so it almost looks like a giant snowdrop. They are related to and resemble Ornithogalum, which I have never been successful in growing, though I have occasionally seen clumps of them growing well in nearby suburbs. The bulb sits above the ground and the glossy green strappy leaves are lush all year round. The flowers last well in vases. The bulbs multiply fairly quickly and can be grown in pots. This bulb is very drought tolerant and flowers best in sun but will also do quite well in part shade.

Dietes bicolor

Another flower from South Africa that I am enjoying this month is more a rhizomatous perennial than a true bulb, belonging to the Iridaceae family of plants: Dietes bicolour (ht 90 cm), a pale yellow cousin of the ubiquitous white-flowered species (Dietes iridiodes and Dietes grandiflora, ht 90 cm) that are seen in many public plantings because of their toughness and will to survive in poor, dry soils. All three species have tall, slim leaves in evergreen clumps and will grow in full sun or part shade. The pale yellow version is useful in plantings with soft blue bearded Iris and Agapanthus; I also like to match it to plants with a light yellow variegation on their foliage. I have a white-striped leaf version of Dietes with the cultivar name of 'White Tiger', and it is a very attractive plant to grow amongst other white flowers. Its blooms seem larger than the usual white Dietes and it doesn't grow so quickly into huge clumps, nor does it self-seed so annoyingly. Another interesting species is Dietes robinsoniana, sometimes known as the wedding iris, native to Lord Howe Island. It is a much taller plant with broader leaves, forming a most attractive clump. Mine has never flowered but I have heard of a friend's specimen blooming recently in Sydney, with large white flowers on tall panicles.