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Archive for the ‘Bulbs’ Category


Show your colors: Many-hued native bulb flowers are built to survive our hot, dry climate

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Many people are amazed to learn that there are bulbs native to California. “Bulbs” conjures images of gladioluses, tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, even snowdrops — all of which are native to other parts of the world. But, bulbs native to California? Really?

Yes, really.

Nearly all the bulbs offered in nurseries are bold, fancy versions hybridized from far more modest bulbs found in nature. Our native bulbs are on that “nature” scale. While they are not “in your face” the way a fancy glad might be, that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful. In fact, in many respects, they are even more remarkable looking.

Yellow Mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus), for example, is native to coastal, valley and foothill areas from the Mexican border, almost to Oregon. All mariposas (there are many kinds) are true lilies. Yellow Mariposa lily’s narrow, grasslike leaves stand only 4 to 8 inches tall. From late spring into summer, foot-tall stalks are topped with cup-shaped flowers of bright yellow (hence the name, “luteus”) with burgundy markings. ‘Golden Orb’ is one of the varieties most widely available to gardeners.

The cup-shaped flowers of Calochortus venustus, butterfly Mariposa lily, look very similar to yellow mariposa. Their flowers, though, can range from white to pink, yellow to purple, even reddish brown, often with reddish markings in the center. These are petite bulbs, only a foot or two tall, native to mountains and foothills from the Sierras to the San Gabriels, so they are quite cold hardy. Springtime is bloom time. Plant in full or part sun.

Early onion, Allium praecox, is an onion, but probably not an onion you’d choose to eat. It is one you might choose to grow in your garden, especially since it is one of the earliest blooming native bulbs. Flower stalks emerge from foot-tall clumps of slender, grasslike leaves starting in late winter. Through early spring, stalks are topped in clusters of tiny white to pink to purplish flowers. These bulbs do very well in dry shade.

Tube-shaped springtime flowers of Dichelostemma ida-maia, firecracker flower, are an odd combination of crimson red and chartreuse. Foot-tall flower stalks are topped with a handful of dangling blooms, best seen close up. Since these are higher-elevation bulbs from the edges of forests in north coastal California, they perform best planted in shade or part sun.

Dichelostemma capitatum, known as blue dicks, is similar to firecracker flower, but its flower clusters are upright and purply blue/lavender on taller flower stalks.

Soap bulb, Chlorogalum parviflorum is native to the dry, coastal sage scrub widely found throughout coastal San Diego County. Soap bulb’s slender green leaves grow only about 8 inches tall. In late spring and into summer, tiny, white flowers line stalks 1 to 3 feet tall. Each of the star-shaped blooms has six prominent yellow pollen sacks around a swollen, green center. The bulb part of this plant contains a chemical called saponin. If you wet your hands and rub a bulb between them, you’ll get a handful of soapy foam, hence their use by American Indians. Don’t drink the foam, though, as saponin is toxic. Plant in full sun, where bulbs can go dry in summer.

All of these bulbs live through hot, dry summers with no irrigation. As summer approaches, their foliage withers to the ground. The bulbs are dormant, then, until fall rains, when new foliage appears. They do best under conditions that emulate nature, so plant them in unirrigated areas. They are longest lived in well-draining soils.

Bulb sources

Recon Native Plants: 619.423.2284

Easy to Grow Bulbs

• Telos Rare Bulbs

Theodore Payne Foundation: 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, CA, 91352

Tree of Life Nursery: 33201 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675


Hidden Pleasures

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Hidden Pleasures

Plants are so amazing….

Last night, my husband and I took an evening stroll and as we stepped out the front door, I was struck by a sweet fragrance.   I couldn’t quite pinpoint its source, and since my husband was already half way up the street, I scrambled after him rather than taking the time to find it.

Upon our return, however, I stopped him before he made it to the front door.  “Honey,” I said, “do you smell that?  Lets figure out where it is coming from.”  I happen to have a better smeller than he does, but I like to involve him in my plant escapades from time to time.

I know from experience that the biggest smells often comes from the most demure or subtle blooms.  In fact, it is a common strategy for plants whose flowers aren’t very showy to make a big smell.  We humans may think that the fragrance is for our enjoyment, but in truth, that’s how the plants attract pollinators.  And the fragrance isn’t always sweet.

In the case of Stapelia, for example, the genus is known for its off-color, star-shaped  flowers that nestle deep among succulent branches.  It would be pretty challenging for an insect or bird to find their blooms by sight.  But the flowers emit a terrible odor, like rotten meat.  And guess what their pollinator is…   flies!  What better way to attract a fly than to smell like rotten meat?

Pale colored flowers are often fragrant too.  Angel trumpet (Brugmansia) for example, has lovely, huge, dangling trumpet-shaped flowers, typically in ghostly white, pale, yellow or pale pink/coral.

Beautiful white flowering angel trumpet is fragrant from afternoon to evening to attract its pollinator, a night flying moth

Beautiful white flowering angel trumpet is fragrant from afternoon to evening to attract its pollinator, a night flying moth

These big-blooming South American natives are pollinated by moths at night.  So, how do the moths find their targets in the dark?

If you grow angel trumpet, you’ve probably noticed that they emit a wonderful floral fragrance starting in the late afternoon and lasting through much, if not all of  night time hours (I’m never awake long enough to figure out when the fragrance abates).  The moths simply follow the scent.

By the way, hybrid angel trumpets are selected for more intense-colored flowers.  And the  cold-tolerant, Andean red angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia sanguinea blooms deep orange-red with a yellow throat.

One of my favorite species gladiolas, Gladiolus tristis (South African marsh Afrikaner) uses the same strategy as the angel trumpet. These January/February bloomers have tall, narrow leaves and the palest of yellow flowers.  Starting late afternoon, their perfume fills the air, just in time to attract their own moth pollinator.

But this time of year, the angel trumpet has yet to flower and the gladiola is long past.  So what was so fragrant?

Amazingly enough, it was a Sansevieria, a plant whose unfortunate common name is mother-in-law’s tongue.

Sansevieria are evergreen plants of tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia.  They were tremendously popular in the era of  mid-century modern and modernistic architecture (roughly 1940s – 70s) because of their own architecture. Tall, smooth, single pointed blades each rise straight from the ground, some solid green, some pale green, some green with yellow margins, and others spotted.  Some blades are straight while others twist slightly.  Still others fold into themselves to form a solid cylindrical spear.

Sansevieria with spotted blades

Sansevieria with spotted blades

Sansevieria with patterned blades

Sansevieria with patterned blades

Sansevieria with cylindrical blades

Sansevieria with cylindrical blades

Sansevieria continue their popularity in part because these oddities are able to live in the shade outdoors (in frost free areas) or indoors with almost no water at all, as long as they are planted in very well draining soil.

I have a Sansevieria given to me years ago that was my very last houseplant after the rest died or migrated outdoors.  It sat in my office and was watered about once every six months – when I remembered.  I finally took pity on it and moved it outdoors where it really isn’t as happy as it seemed indoors.

This demure little Sansevieria bloom has the fragrance of fresh Freesias

This demure little Sansevieria bloom has the fragrance of fresh Freesias

But last night as I searched my front entry patio, I noticed a very small, very unobtrusive, and unfortunately no longer labeled Sansevieria.  It sat in a small pot where it had produced a tall flower stalk, the source of the evening’s perfume extravaganza.

The funny thing is, I have at least a dozen kinds of Sansevieria, most given to me more than 25 years ago by the late plant explorer Manny Singer of Singer’s Growing Things.  All these years, they haven’t even hinted at blooming, and this year, at least four different types are in bloom.  And all fragrant.

Ah, the wonder of plants!