Early spring is the traditional time for bulbs to bloom in the garden, and they seem to epitomise the freshness and vitality of the season. I don't grow those conventional bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths and tulips in my garden: they will flower the first year if given the right treatment, but don't always do well in subsequent years in our Sydney climate (though there are always exceptions!).
I mainly grow corms that are native to South Africa to give that springtime feeling. All belong to the Iridaceae, the large plant family that includes irises. Whilst none of these corms can really create the bold impact of a magnificent swathe of tulips, they do bring a note of lively spring detail into our gardens at this time, when grown in clumps or pockets between shrubs, amongst perennials or at the edges of paths. In general, they are easy to grow in a sunny spot with any reasonably drained soil. They need adequate watering during their winter growing season, but prefer drier conditions during summer when they are dormant. They naturalise to form clumps: when these become very congested they can be dug up once the leaves have died down then replanted, or stored in a dry spot such as a garage until autumn. Leaves should be allowed to die down naturally.
The most popular specimen is probably the common Freesia, ht 30 cm, appearing from mid-August until the end of September, a source of early spring fragrance. The most common version has one-sided wiry sprays of creamy funnel-shaped flowers with distinct yellow throats but others are a soft yellow hue. In many gardens, freesias are naughty weeds, running amok through lawns and garden beds but it is hard to imagine spring without them. Dead-heading after bloom may go some way towards restraining their spread. Brightly coloured hybrid freesias in strong colours of red, cerise, orange and yellow are worth a try although in my experience they do tend to flop over, so they probably need to be supported in some way; the most recent releases promise stronger stems. These types also maybe should be dug up each year once the leaves have died down and stored in the garage in a net onion bag until next autumn or they are liable to disappear from the garden, unlike their tougher cousins.
Baboon flowers (Babiana stricta, ht 30cm) have flowers in distinctive colours of purple-blue, violet, mauve and magenta - and even white - with attractively pleated leaves. Give these corms a good position this year in sun and decent soil and they will be a joy. I have had them growing nearby a patch of golden oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'), which creates a vivid combination. This year I have tried to be more diligent in giving Aquasol to all my corms and it has really made a difference to them!
The harlequin flower (Sparaxis tricolour, ht 15-30 cm) includes cheery yellow, orange and orange-red flowers, often with dramatic black bands around the centre of the blooms. Corn lilies (Ixia maculata, ht 45-60 cm) are similar, with dark-eyed, star-shaped blooms on long, elegant stems. The most commonly seen form is yellow, although red, orange or cerise cultivars can be obtained, and some types are striped, like old-fashioned boiled lollies. There is a beautiful jade green species (Ixia viridiflora, ht 60 cm) but I have never had much success with it. Both harlequin flowers and corn lilies can theoretically be left in the ground until they become too congested, but if they are likely to be watered too much in summer, they can be dug up once the leaves have died down and stored until autumn like the hybrid freesia corms, otherwise they too may be liable to fade away if left in the ground.
The taller Watsonia species, also members of the Iridaceae, are also now coming into bloom, including the beautiful bright-pink cultivar 'Wedding Bells' (ht 80 cm, pictured at the start of the blog) and the traditional pink and white Watsonia borbonica (ht 75-150 cm). 'Wedding Bells' seems to be a hybrid, perhaps between Watsonia borbonica and Watsonia aletroides, the latter having drooping tubular flowers, and it is a vigorous, spring-flowering bulb, with a stems to a height of 80-120 cm, bearing beautiful pendulous pink blooms in September and October. It is a good companion plant to spring-flowering Salvia such as Salvia rubiginosa and Salvia roscida (syn. Salvia fallax), which both have blue spikes of flowers, or the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow bush, Brunfelsia. Bearded irises also bloom at the same time. I have a white form very similar to 'Wedding Bells' (pictured above), which is flowering with a may bush (Spiraea cantoniensis) and white daisies at the moment.
October will see the blooming of other members of the Iridaceae family, including species Gladiolus. Care should be taken that corms of these plants are not allowed to escape into bushland areas, a proviso that should be applied to any enthusiastic South African corm.
Blog first posted on 20 September 2009; updated 20 September 2020.
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Plants with dramatic shapes can provide form and interest during the winter months.
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A rubbish-strewn lane has been transformed into a lush oasis
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These plant have much to offer but can confuse!