Monday, September 21, 2015


Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro'
Much to my relief, we approach the end of Summer, and get a touch of Autumn as temperatures drop from too many uncomfortable 90°F days to the cool lower-60°F range. It is also the time that bulbs show up in nurseries and other retail stores! I go a little nuts this time of year. Seeing all the bulbs awakens the beast within, and my imagination races as I dream of what new bulbs I want to try and where to plant them. It's called plant lust, it is something us plant nerds experience quite often. I'd say the addiction is comparable to a drug or alcohol addiction ("I want bulbs!" becomes "I need a fix!"), but without all the negative consequences. Nobody is going to overdose on Narcissus... unless you eat them or otherwise "put" them into your body because they are über toxic, dude, but more on that later...

Hemerocallis 'Stella d'Oro'
This is the first ever bloom of this commonplace daylily hybrid in my garden. A handful of these were planted long before my wife and I moved to Oregon, but a lack of water and no fence meant they didn't get what they needed and were constantly grounded by deer (that is, eaten to the ground). They seem to grow happily in the shady forest garden, a bit smaller than they might get if grown in full sun. I like the late bloom! I'm always interested in extending the flowering season, particularly with "bulbs!"

Hemerocallis, though similar in flower to true lilies (Lilium) are in fact grown from a fleshy crown, not a bulb. There are about 19 species, all but one are a shade of yellow, all native to continental Asia. A single species is not yellow, but instead orange: Hemerocallis fulva, the tawny daylily. All daylilies that have any color other than yellow share Hemerocallis fulva in their parentage. By itself H. fulva is really quite invasive, spreading by stolons. The form most often encountered in American ditches and forest edges is a sterile triploid, though this doesn't slow its spread. Other species, and most hybrids, are well behaved garden plants that will form neat clumps. Most often the flowers last for a single day, but my experience is that they will sometimes last two or even three days. New buds are always being formed, so new flowers open frequently over a relatively long period.

Colchicum hybrid
I have had mixed success with bulbs, in general. My first attempts with bulbs ended in frustration as the tulips I planted were eaten by deer, and I did not consider the needs of the plants thus resulting in too much shade, not enough water, and plants that withered away leaving me in sad state. Well, this still happens and probably (hopefully) continue to happen so long as I continue to grow bulbs. It is the way of the amateur; embrace the reality of experiences, both the good and unpleasant, to find your way. So today I will share some of the small lessons I have learned and some things that are going on right now out in the garden concerning bulb gardening.

Colchicum hybrid
With most bulbs, they are planted in the late Summer or Autumn and expected to bloom in Spring. Most can safely be left in the ground (depending on the species and the region) and in fact do not like to be disturbed. I have been asked on multiple occasions: "Is it OK to wait until Spring to plant Spring-flowering bulbs?" The short answer is No. The reason is that while growth above the soil is not seen until Spring with the most commonly available Spring-flowering species, most Autumn-planted Spring-blooming bulbs send out roots in the late Summer or Autumn and initiate growth far before anything breaks the soil surface. Some bulbs (like some of my Alliums) actually have year-round roots unless the soil dries out, complicating transplanting or digging. Waiting until Spring to plant would be harmful, and may even kill the plant (something I observed with tulips). The best advice is to plant the bulbs as soon as they are in your possession, no need to wait!

The first bulbs I ever tried, some mixed Darwin tulips, I thought that some could be planted while the rest could wait a year before planting. What a dolt. What I hadn't considered was that bulbs are very much alive, living off of the stored resources in their scales (in the form of starches and a variety of random constituents). This is why when I checked the unplanted bulbs some time in Spring they had all shrunk three-quarters their size! They had used up most of their resources, and even after they were planted they had barely the strength left to send up a single leaf. I never saw them again. This was the reality of experience, and an opportunity to learn.

Colchicum hybrid
Colchicum is an "odd bulb" (actually a corm, similar to but different from the corms of  Brodiaea, Crocus, and Gladiolus) that is sometimes sold at nurseries in late summer alongside bearded Iris rhizomes. Many Colchicums are Autumn flowering, while some are tender and flower in Winter or in Spring. I have had mixed success growing these; Colchicum cilicicum does well while Colchicum speciosum and Colchicum 'Lilac Wonder' (a speciosum hybrid, I believe) have dwindled. Perhaps they need richer soil to flourish? I will try fertilizing them when they send up leaves (hopefully!) in Springtime.

Colchicum cilicicum with Forficula sp. (8PM)
Colchicum in my garden has been visited in the past by a variety of bees, including honeybees who sought them out, but since only one out of five or six corms bloomed this year, they have had much less attractive power. They have instead been visited by pincher bugs (Forficula sp.) at night and large carpenter ants by day. If bees had visited the flowers, I have missed it. I have on occasion found pincher bugs inside flowers at night, clearly feeding on nectar and not destroying flower parts, on a small variety of flowers including Chionodoxa earlier in the year and Echinacea. There is a familiar colony of carpenter ants that live in or around our well house; they are often found wandering around the bed that wraps around the front. On occasion they too will visit flowers, but just like the pincher bug, I doubt their effectiveness as pollinators.

Colchicum cilicicum with carpenter ant
Last year I was able to collect some large seeds from this Colchicum which I have now sown and will hope for results in the next year or two. My previous attempt of growing Colchicum seed (C. autumnale) was met will frustration and disappointment; first that the seeds did not germinate (I suspect they rotted), and second because I dumped the pot. My hope is now that there were a few good seeds in the pot and they will germinate sometime in the future wherever I dumped them.

Amaryllis belladonna
I pulled my car over one day while on my way home from work to take some photos of some naked ladies, or at least that's what I told my wife. The monotypic Amaryllis belladonna, with a common name that reflects the habit of flowering without the leaves, is the type species of the Amaryllidaceae, or aptly named amaryllis family. The family includes many known and obscure genera including Narcissus, Hymenocallis, Crinum, Lycoris, and Sternbergia to name a few of the better known genera. The common "amaryllis" for forcing is actually the mostly South American genus Hippaestrum, which does share a resemblance to true Amaryllis.

Amaryllis belladonna, about 3' tall
Many people, particularly from California, have been reporting that flowering of Amaryllis belladonna has been prolific this year. Multiple factors could be at work, but the most obvious of the possibilities is the severe drought that California, and much of the Western United States, has been experiencing, possibly an affect of El Niño. Added to that the monsoons that Southern California has had recently, these less-than-normal conditions may play a role in the increased flowering of the naked ladies. Here in Southern Oregon, we have had some light rain (not at all monsoon-like) that may have had some affect. This group of Amaryllis has been there for years, though I can't say for sure how long. I think I will try it in my own garden next time I see it available (normally in Spring).

So much potential!
Between collecting seed from my own plants and from the PBS seed exchange, I have now 32 new pots of sown seed! These are mostly bulbs. They were sown a few weeks ago, and kept moist. The pots are topped with grit, from a little to a lot depending on the seed's needs (surface sown or not). This year I am growing:
  • Allium amplectens 'Graceful'
  • Allium bolanderi var. mirabile
  • Allium cristophii
  • Allium oreophilum
  • Allium senescens ssp. montanum (misidentified in cultivation as A. tangutium)
  • Allium subhirsutum
  • Allium trifoliatum 'Cameleon'
  • Arctostaphylos viscida
  • Arisaema heterophyllum
  • Barnardia japonica
  • Brodiaea elegans
  • Colchicum cilicicum
  • Crocus goulimyi
  • Dichelostemma capitatum
  • Erythronium grandiflorum
  • Erythronium hendersonii
  • Erythronium oregonum
  • Erythronium revolutum
  • Helianthus maximiliani
  • Iris chrysophylla
  • Prospero autumnale ssp. latifolia
  • Pseudomuscari azureum
  • Triteleia crocea
  • Wyethia amplexicaulis
So you see they aren't all bulbs, some are native plants that I am growing to plant in my garden and for other gardens. One such destination for some of these will be the landscape in front of my work, a cabinet factory, where I have been allowed and paid to plant pollinator-friendly drought-tolerant plants! They have also given me a small budget to buy bulbs with (already spent!), more on that later.

I have been asked "what is grit and where do you get it?" Grit is just small gravel: pea gravel, chicken grit (make sure it is salt free, taste it), or even sifted road base (sifting out both large rocks and fine dust), so that you have a sharp material with pieces less than ¼" and nothing too fine. Sharp angled pieces are preferred over rounded material. The purpose is to hold the seeds in place, increase drainage and aeration, and in my experience make watering easier. The relatively heavier grit keeps the soil and seeds from floating when the pot is watered.

Seedlings of Prospero autumnale
My seedlings of Prospero autumnale that I had sown in Spring this year have persisted through the heat. i will try and keep them alive and green as long as I can, even through Winter if it is possible. I will fertilize and baby them. I had worried about their hardiness, but they came from plants grown in southeast Michigan where the climate is surprisingly similar based on Summer heat and unreliable snow-cover in Winter. I think that if I can bring these "bulblings" to maturity, they will do just fine here in Rogue River.
Narcissus 'Canaliculatus' bulbs
Along with seeds I am also buying bulbs. I had not pre-ordered any bulbs from specialty suppliers this year, but instead have "gotten my fix" of exotics from the variety of seed I am growing. As usual for this time of year, I always check the bulb displays in stores to see what they have this year. Aside from the usual mix of tulip hybrids and trumpet daffodils, I check for the current years variety of small bulbs and pseudo-species available, the selection tends to alternate from year to year. Narcissus 'Canaliculatus' is probably a variety or subspecies of the broadly-defined N. tazetta, differing primarily by the ridged leaves, thus the epithet Canal-iculatus.

This is a dwarf tazetta-type (having small scented flowers), and is said to prefer to bake in the Summer. I am trying this bulb in a few different locations, one irrigated and one dry. I find planting advice from gardeners around the world is best taken with a grain of salt, because my garden offers different variables. Planting the bulbs in two, or even three different locations with different variables (aspect, moisture, exposure, soil, etc.) will be the best guide for discovering what a plant likes. Wherever the plants are in their best character, show the best vigor, and persist (and increase) will be the best mix of variables for that plant.

Leucojum aestivum bulbs
Another new-to-me bulb is the snowflake, related to snowdrops (Galanthus). I've not had good results with snowdrops, getting a few leaves and maybe a single flower, but then nothing ever again. Leucojum is something I've never tried. Receiving only a few bulbs, I kept them together despite my advice in the preceding paragraph. I did some research on the growing conditions they like, and most accounts report they like Summer moisture. Thus I planted them in my rock garden in a low spot by a soaker hose where they will not dry out. Being in the Amaryllis family, I am counting on the plants and the bulbs to be toxic and so not eaten by the horde of resident plant-eaters.

Mixed Crocus corms
Against my best judgement, I plant a few extra Crocuses every year. They are eaten by ground and tree squirrels, gophers, voles, deer, and even wild turkeys. But, I have found a few spots they have been left alone... so far. In these spots I have planted a few more every year in the hopes that they will be ignored or overlooked by wildlife (except for bees!)

Though I only bought a few corms for myself, maybe 70 of mixes selections and species, I was given a budget of $100 to spend on bulbs to plant at my work! As far as bulbs go, $100 wont normally take you that far. But with a "buy-two get-one-free" sale at a local supermarket, I was able to get $50 in free corms resulting in 675 mixed species and selections! It is going to be epic.

Cyclamen hederifolium
While planting bulbs and tending to other end-of-year garden activities, it's important to take a look around the garden and enjoy the fruits of my efforts. This small Cyclamen flower is the first one to bloom in my garden, the start of a long bloom period and a long growth cycle that will last well into Spring,

Autumn blooming plants have an advantage over Spring and Summer blooming species because they lack the competition from many other flowering plants as in Summer, yet grow while there is still a relative abundance of active pollinators, unlike Spring when early on there are relatively few active pollinators. In other words, comparatively fewer plants bloom in Autumn, so pollinators have fewer choices. That said, Cyclamen in general are rarely visited by any pollinating insects outside of their native Mediterranean range where they are variably visited by bees and flies.

Box of goodies!
Good and bad strike a fair balance in the garden, although most often it seems unfair. I have lost more Alliums this year to various rodents than I can even know at this time, but it is a harsh reality in an area rich in wildlife. Fortunately, a friend who heard of my plight sent me some Alliums that are weeds in his garden. Finally, all my complaining has paid off! The package included bulbs of Allium cyathophorum var. farrer and Allium caeruleum. Two mystery species were also included, which makes the gift even more fun!

Received as: Allium sp? mauve ex china 28”
I was told that three of the species have perennial roots, while one goes completely dormant. This is one of the species with perennial roots, though I suspect it would behave similar to the plants of Allium cernuum and A. carinatum subsp. pulchellum that I have and keep roots all year so long as they are watered. The bulb then is sort of a backup plan, and would sustain the plants if the ground dried up. I potted this one and will observe it for a year before deciding where to plant it (caged of course). 

Received as: Allium ? purple drumstick
This is the one species that goes completely dormant. There are a number of drumstick Alliums besides the commonly available Allium sphaerocephalon. I have a number of A. sphaerocephalon growing around the garden, and they seem to do well in both irrigated and dry conditions. A. sphaerocephalon is similar to garlic and elephant garlic (A. sativum and A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum, respectively) by having bulbs comprised of a few thick scales rather than layers like an onion (A. cepa). The flowering scape grows out of the center of the scale, new scales are produced at the basal plate (the true stem of a botanically true bulb), then the main scale dies leaving the new outer scales to grow on the following year. A. ampeloprasum differs slightly by creating new scales spiraling the scape rather than around the basal plate as in garlic.

Wire "rodent proof" box
In response to the recent Rodent Wars in my garden ( hit reality show? No, too much foul language), I've resorted to building ½" wire mesh (aka hardware cloth) cages. The cages will protect the bulbs from rodents, above and below ground, while remaining unseen by being buried underground. They will not protect the plants from above ground destroyers of garden delights such as deer and in some cases wild turkeys or others, but will help avoid the tragedy of finding a scape that is attached to nothing underground. It is heartbreaking. This cage has an open top because the plant going into it, Allium cyathophorum var. farrer is in active growth.

Cage submerged to just below soil level
In the rock garden, I carefully excavated an area that will remain moist, a preference for the cage's new resident. There wasn't much in this spot thanks to some rodent who ate all the Alliums that had resided here untouched for several years. Various Sedums had to be moved, but they are just about the easiest plant to transplant, rooting almost anywhere they contact moist soil. The cage is submerged just below the soil level.

Allium cyathophorum var. farrer
According to the Pacific Bulb Society wiki: "Allium cyathophorum var. farreri is native to China where it grows on grassy slopes at high elevations. It has reddish purple flowers with stamens fused in a tube." I was also told by my donor friend that it is a weedy species. If that were true, I would be very happy! The plant is also said to appreciate moist conditions, so the dryness of the surrounding landscape would keep it from getting too comfortable.

Allium cyathophorum var. farrer planted and watered in the rock garden
The cage was filled partially with soil and sand, then the plant was added and soil filled in around it. Stones and replanted Sedums complete it. My concern now is that the leaves have begun to die, but I have hope because I have seen other Alliums behave this way. It was quite hot during planting, in the high 80's, so perhaps it is experiencing transplant shock. I will try watering it with a touch of hydrogen peroxide to help oxygenate the roots.

Colchicum cilicicum
The lesson today is to keep trying, and learn from tragedy. The lack of growth from other Colchicums in my garden signals to me that I should get more Colchicum cilicicum. And start using wire cages for everything, because who knows that those little bastards will eat next?


  1. I've never worried about mice and alliums. Lilies yes. I pack little stones around bulbs, to discourage excavation - and plant them deep.

    Thanks to Jim McKenney for this...

    This is from One Writer's Garden: Eudora Welty's Home Place, page 146.
    Squirrel, squirrel, burning bright,
    Do not eat my bulbs tonight!
    I think it bad and quite insidious
    That you should eat my blue tigridias.
    Squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris,
    Leave to me my small muscaris,
    Must you make your midnight snack, mouse,
    Of Narcissus Mrs. Backhouse?
    When you bite the pure leucojum,
    Do you feel no taint of odium?
    Must you chew till Kingdom Come
    Hippeastrum advenum?
    If in your tummy bloomed a lily,
    Wouldn't you feel sort of silly?
    Do you wish to tease and joke us
    When you carry off a crocus?
    Must you hang up in your pantries
    All my Pink Queen zephyranthes?
    Tell me, has it ever been thus,
    Squirrels must eat the hyacinthus?
    O little rodent,
    I wish you wo'dn't!

  2. Hi Travis, great post as usual! I do so enjoy your blog.

    I have another few neophyte geophyte questions, I hope you don't mind.

    When you use grit on your seed pots, do you just go by the weight of the pot to tell when they need water? As you can't see the soil?

    Also, what do you use to water them with? I haven't found a sprayer/sprayer head that has a fine enough spray not to dislodge the soil or gravel. Do you have a trick here?

    thanks again!

    Sarah H.

    1. Hi Sarah, I water with a watering pail with a long spout, slowly. Alternatively I'll use a small cup. The soil eventually forms a good structure and careful watering becomes less of an issue. To check moisture, I use a finger. And I check more often in hot weather. If inside or on a covered porch, don't forget to check in Winter too. Once the seedlings get growing they'll use more water.

    2. Thanks Travis!



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