Sunday, September 6, 2015

Bulbs That Bloom in the Fall

A gardener’s secret weapon, bulbs that bloom in the fall are an overlooked way to welcome post-summer color, as the rest of your yard is fading. Now’s the time to plant them. Crocus sativus, an autumn-blooming crocus, not only produces the expensive and much-coveted spice saffron but also adds a colorful note during months when most flowers are dormant.
Photo by White Flower Farm

By Bart Ziegler
WSJ, Aug. 26, 2015

Every year, they catch me off guard. After the nights have turned cooler and the trees are dappled with yellow leaves, my flower beds begin sprouting clusters of bright pink and fuchsia flowers, like visitors meant to arrive in springtime who got lost for six months.

My fall-blooming bulbs are called colchicum, and when they open, they resemble crocuses on steroids. They’re just one example of a little-known class of flower that seems confused about what time of year it is, since most bulbs, as well as perennials and shrubs, issue their flowers in spring to take advantage of the bounty of bees buzzing around then.

 These unusual plants—which include the diminutive Crocus sativus, a violet flower that produces the fragrant orange spice saffron, as well as the more statuesque Sternbergia lutea, with bright yellow blooms—are “overlooked and underused,” said Sam Hoadley, a horticulturist at Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia, though he added that he is seeing them more frequently in public and private gardens these days. “They add a whole other layer and dimension to the garden when things are starting to go dormant,” he said.

At the San Francisco Botanical Garden, curator Don Mahoney plans to introduce colchicum into an area of the garden designed to mimic the growing conditions of the Mediterranean, which has the dry-in-summer quality that these bulbs prefer. “They are very rarely seen here in California, and they should be,” he said. “I think they are wonderful.”

From left: The white goblet shape of Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’ looks more like something you’d pick up during Easter; You’ll need to disguise the dying leaves of this ‘Waterlily’ Colchicum in summer—but the bloom is worth it; Sternbergia lutea provides a jolt of yellow to rival the leaves of fall trees. Photo by Michael Hoeweler.

Colchicum bulbs will last for years in your yard, but they are a little perverse. If you plant them now, the flower blooms will pop up in four to six weeks. But colchicum bulbs won’t produce any of their leaves until next spring, when most plants do; even more odd, the thick, wide foliage turns yellow and disappears over the summer. That creates two design challenges: how to disguise the dying leaves, and how to fill the holes in your flower beds until colchicum’s autumn blooms arrive.

“The foliage is kind of a hassle,” admitted Jacob Burns, curator of perennial plants at Chicago Botanic Garden. Cutting off the leaves isn’t an option because they deliver needed nutrition to the bulbs. “You have to suffer through that yellow phase,” he said. But he finds that the flower’s charms outweigh its downsides.

‘They’re part of a little-known class of flower that seems confused about what time of year it is.’

One trick is to plant the bulbs beneath a low ground cover. Ivy, vinca, ajuga, liriope or another thick-growing plant will disguise the dying leaves in summer and provide support for the delicate blooms when they arrive again next fall.

Other fall-blooming bulbs—including the aforementioned Crocus sativus and Sternbergia lutea—generally produce their leaves along with their flowers, and are easier to integrate into perennial beds.

Either way, now is the time to act: Depending on where you live, the blooms will begin to show between late September and December. Just try not to plant on top of them next spring.

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