Sydney-friendly bulbs & corms

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Watsonia Wedding Bells grows well in Sydney

As I've mentioned over the years, I don't have much of a spring garden (preferring to concentrate my efforts on summer- and autumn-flowering plants) - but I have always loved spring bulbs and corms, as they bring such a freshness and sense of the rebirth of the garden. Though I may have once dreamed of 'a host of golden daffodils', tulips and hyacinths, I've learned the hard way that such bulbs are best admired in cooler climates than ours, such as in the Southern Highlands or Southern Tablelands of NSW (see here to find open gardens and garden events in these areas). In Sydney, we do best with bulbs and corms from warm parts of the world, mainly South Africa, but also South and Central America.

In previous blogs I have discussed some of the South African flowering corms (such as the Watsonia pictured at the start of the blog) here, and some bold versions here and here. I have since added a few more specimens to my garden that I have been enjoying for the past few weeks, and there are some very old favourites too, that I have never got around to mentioning!

Spanish bluebells

One of the spring stalwarts that I have always enjoyed is the bluebell. The most successful bluebell for our climate is Hyacinthoides hispanica (ht 30-40 cm; synonym Scilla hispanica), the Spanish bluebell, which grows easily and naturalises well to form drifts here. It is native to Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The so-called English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is less successful in our gardens. The best position for Spanish bluebells is one with fairly rich, moist soil in part-shade. They will, however, cope with lesser conditions and still flower quite well. The glossy foliage grows through winter, and the clustered, nodding flowers appear in September and are a pretty blue. White and pink forms are sometimes available but don't seem as resilient as the blue. They are good cut flowers.

Tristagma uniflorum, the spring starflower

Blue is one of my favourite colours so I have also always liked growing blue starflowers Tristagma uniflorum ht 15-20 cm; synonym Ipheion uniflorum) in my garden. This bulb comes from Argentina and Uruguay. Arising from grassy clumps of foliage (ht 15-20 cm) in late winter and early spring, the flowers face upwards and are shaped like simple stars. Usually seen in a shade of pale blue, there are also white, purplish and stronger blue-coloured cultivars. The bulbs grow best in well-drained soil in part-shade in Sydney. They multiply quite rapidly to form thick clumps, which can be divided in summer when they are dormant. They are probably one of the easiest spring bulbs to grow in Sydney. They do smell of onions when crushed or handled! Both bluebells and starflowers are effective grown beneath spring-flowering shrubs; I also grown them with the white form of Iris japonica and the pretty Crassula multicava, both of which are in bloom at the same time as these bulbs.

Tulbaghia simmleri, white version

It's handy to have bulbs like these that will tolerate part-shade, as so many do demand full sun. Another example for a shady spot is Tulbaghia simmleri (ht 45 to 60 cm; synonym Tulbaghia fragrans). It actually begins flowering in winter but continues on into early spring, so is good value. It is a bulbous perennial from South Africa and a relative of the more familiar 'society garlic' (Tulbaghia violacea), though with larger, strap-shaped foliage and bigger star-shaped flowers, though of the same pretty lilac colour as society garlic, and these are clove scented. There is also a beautiful white-flowered version, which looks lovely when grown with white forget-me-nots or calla lilies, both flowering now in a shady border in my garden.

Albuca juncifolia

Another South African bulb that grows in a relatively shaded spot in my garden is one new to me this year: Albuca juncifolia (ht 20 cm) is what I believe to be its name. It looks almost like a strange sort of striped, greenish-yellow daffodil or even a Fritillaria, nodding daintily above its grassy leaves for a number of weeks. The only other Albuca I grow is Albuca altissima, a much taller plant that blooms in late spring, but which also grows well in shade. I'm delighted with its little cousin!

Cyrtanthus mackenii

The Ifafa lily (Cyrtanthus species) is another cute little South African bulb that I have only recently been growing. The curved, trumpet-shaped flowers appear in clusters at the top of 20-30 cm stems. Some species are fragrant. The most often seen is Cyrtanthus mackenii with ivory blooms in late winter and early spring; the variety cooperi has creamy-yellow flowers. The one pictured has just flowered for the first time in my garden and I was thrilled when the unfamiliar flash of colour caught my eye last week; it is most likely another form of Cyrtanthus makenii. Other species flower in early summer or autumn. Cyrtanthus elatus is the name of what was once called Vallota speciosa, the vallota or Scarborough lily: it has dramatically large, scarlet, funnel-shaped flowers - I have never had any luck growing these in my garden, alas! Cyrtanthus mackenii do best in a sunny, well-drained position with humus-rich soil, with their necks at or just above ground level, and can be divided when dormant if they become too congested. The Ifafa lily makes a good cut flower.

Pink form of Gladiolus carneus

My final specimen is also South African in origin and it grows from a corm: Gladiolus carneus (sometimes known colloquially as 'painted lady'), one of the many species of a familiar genus that have been cross-bred into myriad fancy, frilled cultivars, which aren't really my sort of plants. The species are nice plants, though not all of them grow well in Sydney. Gladiolus carneus (ht 60 cm) does well, however; the basic form has white flowers with purple markings, but my favourite is a lovely rich pink-flowered form with white and crimson markings that has formed a good clump in my garden over the past few years. It seems a stronger plant than the white one, which can tend to look a bit weedy. The blooms appear in September, and the colour is very similar to that of Watsonia 'Wedding Bells', which flowers at the same time. The Gladiolus likes a well-drained sunny position and not too much water over summer, when it is dormant.

These spring bulbs don't ask much: just a bit of liquid fertiliser when they are actively growing, and a bit more when their foliage is dying down later on. They don't take up much space in the garden, and bring plenty of joy at this time of year. The main thing to remember is to mark the spot where they are so you don't accidentally dig them up when they are dormant!