Bulbs: Buried Treasure
Photo - Robin Powell
There are few gems in the garden as reliably dazzling as bulbs.
Buy now, plant soon and in spring your reward, for barely any effort at all, is a garden bejewelled with colour. And all this sparkle comes for less than the cost of a bunch of flowers from the florist.
So which treasures will you bury this season? On these pages some of the Garden Clinic team reveal the bulbs on their Most Desirable list.
Who can resist a pot or garden bed filled with gorgeous tulips in full bloom? I certainly can’t. Tulips are a passion that started for me back in the ‘60s. Throughout that decade, and the next, the highly respected ABC gardener Allan Seale escorted dozens of Woman’s Weekly World Discovery cruises to Holland to see the tulip fields and their cavalcade of colour. Allan published many photographs of what he’d seen and those snaps launched my ‘tulipmania’. My passion was confirmed when my mum and dad returned from their first overseas trip in 1969 with their own slides of Holland’s Keukenhof Gardens.
In 1989 I managed to get to Europe myself and saw tulips used creatively in the garden, not just as great swathes of massed colour. The tulips at Monet’s garden in Giverney, outside Paris, for instance, were magical. Beds were filled with a single tall pink tulip underplanted with beautiful lavender-blue carpets of Virginia stock.
When I started broadcasting at 2GB in 1980 of course I regaled my listeners on the joys of tulips, only to be rebuffed by gardeners and the nursery industry for encouraging a plant that “wouldn’t flower in Sydney’s warm, temperate gardens.” Fortunately, the Victorian bulb grower Tesselaar, as well as Yates, released the Monet Series of tall-stemmed, warm-climate tulip varieties. Game on! Van Diemen Quality Bulbs in Tasmania joined in with its Single Late Tulip varieties, all of which are suited to climates with cool - not cold - winters, and short, warmer springs. (Of course readers with cold winters and long cool springs can enjoy all the regular tulips, as before.)
When I became a Trustee of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney in 1988 I launched an offensive to get tulips into the garden. It took several years to persuade the horticulturists to give them a try but in the middle of the next decade a circular bed was finally devoted to tulips. I urged my listeners to go and see them and thousands turned up to photograph the gorgeous blooms. I like to think I converted a whole new bunch of gardeners to tulips!
The fabulous displays at Keukenhof inspired Graham's love of tulips. Photo - Robin Powell
Flowers: singles, doubles, fringed and parrot styles in a wide range of colours.
Care: buy bulbs mid-March. Leave for six weeks in the crisper section of fridge, then plant out in mid May-early June. Incorporate bulb fertiliser and blood and bone to planting hole and plant 20 cm deep and 7-15cm apart.
Buy: Tesselaar, Van Diemen Quality Bulbs, Yates, local nursery
Many of my favourite spring-flowering bulbs and corms originated in South Africa. While not as big and showy as tulips or daffodils, they are extremely reliable and easy to grow in the warm Sydney climate, and, if drainage is good, may be left in the garden to naturalise for a number of years, growing into quite sizeable clumps. The South Africans include perfumed freesias, tall ixias, bright sparaxis and babianas, which are often called baboon flower.
I adore freesias, especially the old-fashioned, wild variety that pop up in the lawn; the blue-green Ixia viridiflora flowers are quite lovely, especially in big clumps in a spring border; and the orange or red flowers of Sparaxis with their yellow and black markings, are satisfyingly loud. But for me, it’s babiana that always finds a place in the garden.
Why is such a delightful plant cursed with such an unattractive name? Baboon flower! Apparently it is because the corm tastes great – if you are a baboon. The wild-growing plants are a favoured food source for the primate.
In the garden the flowers are preceded by hairy, pleated leaves, which are distinctive and pretty. The flowers themselves, which come in
white, dark blue, magenta and purple, look marvellous in a garden with purple flowers and purple-leafed plants. I use them in my ‘Jewel Box’ garden. Loropetalum ‘Burgundy’ and purple euphorbias provide a bit of a backdrop to the lovely blue bearded iris ‘Victoria Falls’. Coleus adds its many different colours of foliage, and cane begonias arch their dark, spotty leaves over the top. Some of these plants star in summer and autumn, so the flash of violet and magenta of babiana in spring heralds what is coming up later in the year. I throw in some happy, purple pansies and top it all off with a dash of lime green from Echeveria pallida.
Babiana corms can be left in places to develop into pleasing clumps of spring flowers. Photo - Chris Burrows/Gettyimages.com
Height: 15-25cm high
Flowers: freesia-like flowers in shades of blue, purple, magenta and pink flower from early to mid-season. Clumps get bigger and better each year.
Care: choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil in and plant 5-10cm apart.
Buy: Tesselaar, Van Diemen Quality Bulbs, Yates, local nursery
Call me old-fashioned, but one of my favourite spring bulbs is the ranunculus. For sheer flower power it is unequalled. One tiny corm (which is a type of bulb) can produce up to 30 blooms, in successions of flowers over a six-week period. You’ve got to love that kind of generosity!
Ranunculus look lovely in a ‘cottage garden’ border, planted in drifts for a harmonising effect. There’s not even any need to lift the corms when they have finished. They will regrow the following year if you allow the foliage to die back. The main claim of ranunculus on my affections though, is that it is a superb flower for vases. Large, double, ruffled blooms are held on strong stems, which last well. The secret is to cut the blooms as they open. I pick them in bud and find they last for almost two weeks. Florists use ranunculus creatively in mixed bunches of other flowers and foliage, but I like them on their own. Their foliage is soft and fern-like and a colour mix of mauve, pink, white and burgundy is delightful. As a very satisfying bonus, the more you cut the more blooms the plants will produce. I always grow many more than I need so I can take lovely bunches to friends.
All of which means that I prefer to plant the tiny tubers in a cutting garden. In my dreams! Of course, in real life I have no room for such a thing as a cutting garden and so I plant them in one of our vegetable plots. This way they grow en masse, get regular attention, watering and lots of feeding. Ranunculus are very heavy feeders because the tiny corms store so little yet they produce so many flowers. I work in lots of fertiliser prior to planting and liquid feed regularly during flowering.
I prefer to plant them in single colours of mauve, pink, white and burgundy, as I dislike the multi-coloured effect. ‘Amethyst’ is my favourite colour, but it’s hard to find. I have found that the best of the double varieties is called ‘Picasso’.
Ranunculus are charming and long lasting cut flowers. Photo - Gettyimages.com
Height: 50-90cm high.
Flowers: large, double, ruffled blooms in mauve, red, pink, white, yellow, orange and burgundy.
Care: for best results, the soil should be well-drained and rich to 30cm. Plant with claws downwards, 5cm deep and 20-25cm apart. After flowering leave bulbs undisturbed. You can remove the foliage once it has died back. These bulbs naturally degenerate over a number of years and need replacing every second or third year.
Buy: Tesselaar sells a Romantic Blend of ‘Picasso’, which is an assortment of pink red and white; as well as a Country Blend, with yellow, red, burgundy and white. There are also some single colours. www.tesselaar.net.au/ranunculus.
Like a family of acclaimed academics that suddenly produces a glamorous movie star, Fritillaria is a genus of interesting, curious and highly collectable bulbs that contains one sumptuous, showy member.
That one gorgeous bulb is appropriately known as the ‘Crown Imperial’ (Fritillaria imperialis). It is guaranteed, if you’ve never seen it before, to stop you in your tracks. Strong, fat stems bolt up to about a metre tall, and carry a crown of pendulous flowers in yellow or rich, burnt orange above which sits a mop of green foliage, like a pineapple top.
This flower has a long garden history, and appears regularly alongside striped tulips and roses in early Dutch still-life paintings. It was also a favourite additive to 17th century knot gardens, where it was very sparsely planted in bare soil between winding rows of box. To see one in real life is to encounter both its historical familiarity and its striking originality in the same moment - as if you’re seeing something both ancient and transient, everlasting and ephemeral.
Unfortunately you’ll have to head overseas to see them, as they’re only very occasionally available for purchase in Australia, and always in very small numbers. Dash over to Keukenhof (Holland) one April, and you’ll see them at their best.
While the ‘Crown Imperial’ eclipses the other species of the family in glamour, its siblings are not without their charms. The snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) is one such species. Its hanging purple flowers look like they’re supported by shoulder pads, and are striped with a totally captivating checkerboard pattern. Fritillaria michailovskyi has been on every collector’s wish list since showing off its yellow-fringed maroon bells on the front cover of ‘The Smaller Bulbs’, byBrian Mathews. As there are species of fritillaria that hail from permanently damp as well as seasonally parched zones of Europe, Africa, Asia and North America, it’s quite possible that you’ll find one or more fritillaries that would settle happily into your climate.
The striking Crown Imperial. Photo - Michael McCoy
Flowers: crown of pendulous flowers in yellow or burnt orange above a mop of green foliage.
Care: prefer a well-drained, loamy soil in full sun or part shade. Plant the bulbs 8-10cm deep and 12cm apart at a slight angle so that water won't collect in the depression at the top of the bulb. Remove flower head after the blooms fade and before it goes to seed. Allow foliage to wither. Water regularly and deeply in spring, withhold water in the summer. Fritillaria is a good choice for areas with dry summers.
Buy: Lambley Nursery, Hill View Rare Plants