Texas Tough Bulbs - Plant Now for Springtime Color


by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden


Oxblood lilies.

Every autumn, Texas gardeners go Dutch, trooping to area nurseries to indulge their passion for spring flowering bulbs, the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths of bulb catalog fantasies. These imported beauties are the stuff of dreams, however. In our climate they are often a shortlived and expensive nightmare. You can do all of the recommended song-and-dance routines (wooden shoes or not) but these little Dutch boys rarely survive from one year to the next.

For most of the past three decades I have resisted buying bulbs because they rarely live up to my childhood memories. I grew up in the northeast where most of these plants have no problem naturalizing and becoming a dependable part of the gardenerís arsenal of perennials. Here in Texas we are told to refrigerate them until Christmas, build special well-drained beds, sprinkle fairy dust, and click our heels together three timesóonly to watch them croak in the first spring heat wave or rot during a winter monsoon. If they actually do survive, many varieties fail to re-bloom, so most folks just use them as expensive annuals that provide a short burst of color.

I have always longed for native and well adapted bulbs that donít have to be babied, and now, fortunately, more and more bulbs for southern gardens are becoming available. These are plants that can survive our often wet winters and hot summers without having to be lifted and stored away during the off-season. What follows is a short list of species that will dependably brighten your garden for many years to come.

Several of my favorite bulbs for Texas gardens actually bloom in late summer or early fall and include the beautiful Oxblood Lily (Rhodophiala bifida). This plant is a stunner, though it could use a better public relations person. Surely, someone could come up with a better way to describe its brilliant red color! The Oxblood Lily is a junior-sized member of the Amaryllis family and features trumpet-shaped blooms. (Pink and white forms also exist but are rarely offered for sale.) These plants grow well in light shade under deciduous trees and are not particularly fussy about their soil conditions. The first rains of autumn trigger the blooms making them a true harbinger of the coming season.

Red Spider Lilies (Lycoris radiata) could also use a more poetic common name. This is another fall bloomer that performs exceptionally well in area gardens. Some old-timers call if Surprise Lily because it seems to pop up from out of nowhere. It is a delicate, graceful flower with orangey-red coloration. Like the Oxblood Lily it seems to enjoy being planted under deciduous trees. I have found that you may need to divide these plants every three or four years, but other than that, little or no care is involved.

Summer Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) is yet another plant with common name issues. This delightful, yet tough, bulb actually blooms in early spring, not summer, and is often seen in older gardens and cemeteries here in Central Texas. This plant seems to have no problem growing in sun or shade and tolerates the poorly drained clay soils that so many of us are cursed with. The small white blossoms hang like pendants from the bloom stalks and the petals have a tiny green dot on their tips. You canít beat this plant for a dependable touch of spring color.

The tiny Grape Hyacinths (the various members of the Muscari tribe) are another sure-fire family of bulbs for Austin area gardeners. There is a field not far from my house that is literally blanketed by these deeply fragrant little flowers every spring. No one fertilizes or divides them, but they really put on a show. I use Grape Hyacinths around the edge of several flowerbeds and enjoy their deep purple color and sweet aroma. Grape Hyacinths can be purchased in a variety of colors, including yellow and white, but you probably have to go on-line to find them in anything but the traditional purple.

All of the bulbs referenced above are commonly available at our local nurseries, so get out there and support the home team.

There are many different species of plants called Rain Lilies, so many that I could not possibly hope to list them all. Many of us look for these diminutive plants popping up in area fields and gardens a day or two after a good shower. I love them for their ephemeral beauty and dogged survival instinct. Among the Rain Lilies, the nearly countless forms of Zephyranthes and Cooperia are hard to beat. Yucca-Do Nursery (www.yuccado.com) in Hempstead offers a host of the Zephyranthes with a wide range of colors as well as sun and soil preferences. Many species of Rain Lily are native to Texas and are being offered by a new Austin based internet venture, Tejas Native Bulbs (www.tejasnativebulbs.com). Look for the white flowered Cooperia and the eye-catching Copper Lily.

Those of us who long for spring flowering bulbs canít resist trying Daffodils, the classic bulb of the northern garden. I have had mixed luck with most of the imported varieties, but in recent years I have been reading a great deal about an old-fashioned form that is supposed to be extremely well adapted for Southern gardens: Campernelle. The Campernelle Jonquil or Daffodil is nearly legendary in the South and is said by some to be as carefree as a wildflower. Some area nurseries will occasionally sell them, but again, like many of these hard-to-find bulbs, your best bet may be tracking them down on the internet. Happy hunting!


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