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Monday, April 15, 2024
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Bulbs are perfect for birthdays

It is a wonderful happenstance that the spring bulb planting season aligns with the birthday celebrations of both the Head Gardener and myself.

We each know that instead of having to wrack our brains over gifts of intimate meaning, we can purchase each other some bulbs for our respective gardens and for the many pots that cluster on our patio.

This year one of the mail-order catalogues featured a section of “rare and exotic” bulbs, among which was a plant I first grew more than forty years ago – the decidedly odd Ferraria crispa.

This is one of the very many South African bulbs that grow so well in New Zealand and belong to the large iris family. In a way, it could be regarded as an odd freesia, but there is a twist in that tale – unlike its more common cousin, this does not possess wafts of delightful fragrance designed to attract passing bees and other insects. In this case, the flowers instead try to attract the neighbourhood flies, and they way they do it is to excrete very unpleasant odours – best described as being like rotten flesh.

The plant grows to about 30cm and has the alternating foliage pattern of sweet corn. The flowers, which only last a day each, are basically yellow, but they are heavily overlain with darker colours, and have crimped and frilled edges. The effect is quite startling – one common name it is the “starfish lily”, which is aptly descriptive.

This was one of the first bulbs I ever grew, and when it first flowered, I was enchanted with its oddness. Years later, when I first started doing a gardening talkback show on National Radio, I was rung by a caller trying to catch me out by asking about growing Ferraria. I was able to describe how they prefer moister soils than you would expect from a South African bulb, but that they still preferred good drainage and dry soils for summer.

By the way, the generic name comes from an Italian botanist rather than a car manufacturer.

Among the other treasures offered were a great range of the more unusually coloured lachenalia species. We are all familiar with the yellow and red form of L. aloides, named ‘Pearsonii’, after the lady whose garden it was found flowering in, and the less familiar but early-flowering L. bulbifera is great because it flowers as early as July, provided it is given a sheltered spot in the garden.

However, there are a few completely different coloured species and varieties. Lachenalia mutablis has showy flowers that [surprise, surprise!] change colour as they age. They start out blue and love through mauve before ending up a very pale yellow. Entrancing plant but one the require compete cover from frost.

In a similar colour range, Lachenalia purpureocaerulea has bell-shaped flowers in shades of blue. Lachenalia pallida, on the other hand, is much more muted and has cream flowers.

The Head Gardener and I were weeding in a friend’s garden the other day and noticed that her daffodils were just about ready to pop their leaves through the soil. In one bed another bulb, the light blue Ipheion uniflorum had already been growing for a while. This pretty little South American plant has lovely starry flowers in shades of blue, varying from deep to almost white. It is a prolific grower and quickly establishes a nice clump. We grow three different coloured forms.

There are some much more unusual members of the family, with a nice yellow species now called Nothoscordum dialystemon. This has small flowers, not unlike those of a crocus, and reaching about the same height as a crocus species. It needs a warm spot with good drainage but prefers a bit of watering over summer as it grows from permanent roots.

Regular readers will know that I have a fascination with oxalis bulbs. Yes, I know some species are terrible weeds, but there are some that make the most amazing garden plants, including the wonderful barber’s pole, O. versicolor, which has white petals edged with bright red. As the flowers open, the edges are wrapped around the edge of the bud giving a lovely striped effect. This is not at all invasive and is a great talking point.

If that is not odd enough for you, how about an oxalis that grows like a succulent and has miniature palm-like leaves? This weird palm leaf oxalis is one called O. palmifrons, which is a dryland plant that has ground-hugging rosettes of palm-shaped leaves that will eventually grow to about 60cm across. This is probably one for the glasshouse or a dry spot under the eaves of the house. It is summer dormant, but when the autumn rains come it will quickly pop up the unique palm-like leaves. In the wild it has pink flowers, but it seldom displays them in cultivation.

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