"Surprising bulbs"

Late summer and early autumn can hold some delightful surprises.
Sunday, 27 February 2022     

A pink cultivar of Zephyranthes candida

This time of year can hold some delightful surprises in our Sydney climate. There is a group of bulbs that have the novel characteristic of sending up their flowering spikes almost overnight at this time of year, seeming to come from nowhere, as in some species, they have no leaves when they bloom. Their sudden appearance and exquisite forms add fresh interest at a time when other plants are starting to going into a decline. They can be rather unpredictable, as in some seasons they don't seem to get round to flowering; however, this seems to just add to their mystique. All these bulbs belong to the Amaryllidaceae family

They prefer to be left undisturbed to form clumps. Generally, they are dormant over summer until they bloom, so should be kept fairly dry at that time, but they enjoy a little moisture during their winter-spring growing period. Most lose their leaves in the warmer weather, and these do not appear until after flowering. They benefit from some bulb fertiliser when the foliage is in active growth.

The belladonna lily or 'naked lady' (Amaryllis belladonna) is one of the best known and easiest to grow of these bulbs, with stout stems up to 75 cm tall topped with dramatic clusters of large trumpet flowers of white, various shades of pink, or pink with a white throat, appearing in February. The large strap-like leaves appear after the flowers then die off rather messily in late spring to early summer. This bulb is very tolerant of neglect and can often be seen flowering in abandoned country gardens. It should be planted in well-drained soil in a sunny spot, and with the bulb neck exposed above soil level.

Appearing in late February or early March are the narrow ruffled petals and long whiskery stamens of red or yellow spider lily bulbs (Lycoris radiata and Lycoris aurea, ht 40 cm). They are the most unpredictable of bulbs, seeming to be quite affected by seasonal factors, but when they do appear, they are quite spectacular. They are said to flower best after a hot, dry summer; however, they are actually woodland bulbs and are best grown in semi-shade, with their necks buried. Mine haven't flowered for a few years but appeared this week - after an unusually wet summer, so I am still none the wiser as to what triggers them to bloom one year and not the next!

Storm lilies (Zephyranthes species, ht 15-25 cm) have grassy foliage and flowers rather like a crocus, and are easily grown in Sydney. Zephyranthes candida has papery white or pink flowers and thin evergreen foliage. Traditionally appearing in late summer or early autumn, they seem to come into bloom after rain has fallen, hence their common name, and earlier flushes of flowers can be expected if there a few periods of rain in the summer months. Zephyranthes minuta has pretty pink blooms, is dormant in winter, and usually begins to flower earlier in the summer than Zephyranthes candida, but may also rebloom after rain later in summer. There are also rare yellow forms, in both bright and pastel shades (such as Zephyranthes primulina). They form thick clumps and can survive in quite dry positions, such as at the base of a hedge. They are best grown in sun.

A related plant is Habranthus robustus, with similarly shaped flowers and leaves. The flowers are rose-pink, fading to white. Both Zephyranthes and Habranthus make good pot plants, as does the Scarborough lily (Cyrtanthus elatus, syn. Vallota speciosa, ht 30 cm), which has bold scarlet-orange clusters of funnel-shaped flowers in late summer to early autumn, though I must say that I haven't found this latter bulb easy to grow. Having recently been given a beautiful cut specimen of the flower from the garden of a friend in the Blue Mountains, I now wonder whether it maybe does better with a cooler winter than Sydney's. I have noticed that there are many Hippeastrum out in bloom in gardens around here at the moment, though their main flowering period is usually spring. This blooming may have been a response to our rainy summer!

These bulbs all provide an element of dynamism in the garden, an extra note of interest which can intrigue and delight the gardener. Some are available in nurseries or mail order catalogues in summer, when the bulbs are dormant; the rest can be found in those precious plant arks: the gardens of inveterate collectors, who may be able to be persuaded to part with a few if begged nicely ...

Blog first posted 11 March 2009; updated 27 February 2022.

 Reader Comments

1/4  Jil - 5126 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Thursday, 12 March 2009

Good grief, when did it become late summer, autumn? Tempus is fugitting. Pink naked ladies are all over the garden here and we certainly qualify for a hot dry summer!

2/4  Di - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 03 October 2011

Love your blog Deidre. In a hot dry part of our garden we have Bletilla striata -Chinese ground orchids, growing in & around agapanthas & next to flowering lavender. They look lovely with pinky mauve flowers in spring, they too have a largish bulb to support them & they self seed.

3/4  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 01 March 2022

This is certainly a surprising time in the garden - unfortunately my belladonnas have decided not to flower! No flowers for the second year - I think the bulbs may have sunk below the ground. No sign of Lycoris flowers, or Hippeastrums, either. However the pink Zephyranthes flowered a couple of weeks ago ,along with some Habranthus. They are rather unpredictable sorts of bulbs but I do find Zephyranthes and Habranthus more reliable than the others! Deirdre

4/4  Valerie - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 01 March 2022

So much water, I think that the plants are trying not to drown. I am hoping some Zephyranthes candida will come out when they see a bit of sun. At least the pink ladies made an appearance. I realised too that there is more shade now because the trees are much fluffier. What a summer! Yes we all want to see some sun! Deirdre

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