Summer may be waning but its effects are still lingering. After months of no rain, the fields and hills are absolutely dry and we think longingly of fall and the hope of some rain.
Despite the dryness, along roadsides and in gardens and fields, ladylike pink flowers on tall stalks have appeared, seemingly from nowhere, with no leaves in sight. These pink flowers are a bulb from South Africa called naked ladies, or pink belladonna lily (Amaryllis belladonna). With winter rains, large, strap-like leaves emerge in fall or early spring, then completely dry and die away by late spring or early summer. After six to eight weeks of dormancy, naked flower stalks up to 2-feet-tall emerge, topped by pink, trumpet-shaped, fragrant lily flowers.
Pink belladonna lilies naturalize well, and are often visible around old homes, boulevards and along roads where they receive no care or even water. Transplant or divide these bulbs during dormant periods. The belladonna lilies are just one of many bulbs from Mediterranean climates that thrive in our wet winter, dry summer climate and need no additional water to flower. Many of these bulbs will persist year after year.
Midsummer to fall is the time for ordering from bulb catalogs before supplies run out. Plant them anytime after mid-October when temperatures have cooled. If fall rains are greatly delayed, plant anyway and water the bulbs well, keeping them moist until the rains come. This is the last time you will need to water them.
Another fall blooming bulb from South Africa is called the Nerine. It has many of the same growing habits as pink belladonna lilies, but the smaller, dainty and frilly pink flowers emerge around September.
The majority of bulbs from Mediterranean climates flower in spring to early summer. Three more South African bulbs (technically corms), but spring blooming, are ixia, sparaxis and freesia. Ixia, or wand flower, come in white, pink, yellow and red. The showy flowers are lily-like and are clustered on a long slender stalk. Each flower has a contrasting magenta to maroon eye.
Sparaxis, or harlequin flower is like a smaller version of ixia, with even more flamboyant open star-shaped flowers in orange, white, pink or lavender with contrasting centers. Freesia have short spikes of cascading flowers. They come in white, cream, purple, and yellow, but the white or cream ones have the most heavenly fragrance. They can be grown in a pot and brought indoors to bloom. All of these bulbs bloom in early spring, and bulbs are small.
Most of us are familiar with daffodils and narcissus. With literally hundreds of varieties, there is something for every grower, from those who like the small and delicate ones to those who prefer loud and flamboyant blooms. Gophers and deer don’t eat them.
A couple of great bulbs from the western Mediterranean are the Peruvian scilla and the Spanish hyacinth. The scilla is a really showy blue/purple bulb that resembles a stiff explosion of fireworks held above the strap-like foliage. Blooming in late spring, they are long-lived and tolerant of shade. It makes an exotic addition to any garden.
A bulb that combines beautifully with it and blooms just a bit earlier (though they overlap) is the Spanish hyacinth. Graceful, strap-like foliage is a feature in itself, and the spikes of deep blue, pink or white blooms are about 18 inches tall. These both naturalize well under trees.