by Frank Niccoli
With all of the color of the summer perennials and annuals, summer bulbs seem to be a forgotten staple of the garden. Many gardeners are finding that the color from these wonderful performers far surpasses the bloom periods and color displays of perennials and annuals. The wide assortment of of sizes colors and sun/shade tolerance creates moving parades of cool in all styles of gardens whether they are perennial borders, a cottage garden, a cutting garden, or even a minimalist shrub border. Tuberous begonias and dahlias are some of the well-know summer bulbs, but we cannot forget some of the lesser bulbs that satisfy an adventurous gardener’s whim. I will start with these two bulbs out of an obligation for their success, and then I will talk about some lesser known bulbs that should be in your garden.
The tuberous begonia shouts in neon candy cane colors in all hues except blue, however the hybridizes are working on creating a blue flower. The bulbs are best planted in a garden area that has bright light, humidity and cooler temperatures similar to our coastal regions. They bloom from early summer until the first frost.
The Chinese Ground Orchid (Bletilla striata) is a true orchid. The lavender or white flowers on pale green ribbed leaves will rise to 18″ high and will appear a dozen to a stem. For a more tropical feel, plant Canna (Canna generalis). Hot, yellow, coral, red, orange and apricot varieties bloom from early summer until the first frost. For a show-piece display in your garden Montbretia (crocosmia) is the hands down champion. The plants grow 2′ – 4′ high and blooms on 3′ stems in crimson-orange, red, orange and yellow. They are great cut flowers lasting over two weeks when grown inside.
Are you looking for drama in a shady area? Caladium (Caladium bicolor) grows from 18 to 36 inches tall and produces leaves that are stippled with white, red, bronze, silver, and pink. Think about an elephant’s ear in these colors and you have caladiums. Grace your dinner for a splash of the dramatic.
If caladiums are not dramatic enough for the shade in your garden, then I would suggest Summer Hyacinth (Galtonia cancans). If I convince you to plant any of the bulbs in this primer, this is the one I most want you to try. From the clumps of dark green leaves, a flower stem of 4′ tall will emerge loaded with funnel-shaped, drooping 2″ white flowers. Not only are they dramatic to behold, but they are also fragrant.
A wonderfully intricate petal of white with a powerful fragrance is the calling card of the Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis narcissiflora) The flowers are a 4″ across on 3′ flower stems with as many as five flowers to a cluster. They are unusual because of the lace-like intricacies of the segmented petals. This plant merits a place in your container or perennial bed. It is impossible to ignore iris. They are the plant that we all remember from our grandma’s garden. Name a color and iris has it. They are great cut flowers, some are fragrant, some are tall and some are short, but all of them are the ruffled painted ladies of our gardens. They are impossible to ignore. I truly love the iris for they span the memory of my early days as a child until now. Every garden I learned and played in has had iris, and so should yours.
Are you looking for a bulb that has petals curled like a gift ribbon? Nerine is the name of that plant. They flower in clusters of ten on 2′ stalks in rose red, dark salmon pink, bright rose pink, white, and bubblegum pink. They are wonderful in containers, make a great cut flower and will bloom from July to January.
The intensely fragrant flower that is weaved into leis is called a tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa). In a small, room this fragrance can be almost annoying. This plant loves the heat and will reward you with 3′ spikes of white tubular flowers.
Mexican shell flowers (Tigridia pavonia) remind us of the importance of just one day because each bloom, a bloom of intense beauty, lasts only one day. The segmented flower resembles a lucky find while beach combing of a three-segmented stippled seashell-like flower surrounded by outer petals of a solid color. The outer petals are orange, pink, scarlet, yellow, and white while the inner petals are these same solid colors with fluorescent stippling. They are well worth a place in your garden.
Most of the summer bulbs we have discussed naturalize well, increase in numbers and last a long time. We will be glad to assist you in selecting bulbs to add that ever-changing kaleidoscope of color in your garden.