Fields of long-stem tulips, pots overflowing with fragrant hyacinths and spectacular fritillarias exploding out of fields of blue Muscari like spring fireworks. These are the images many gardeners have of flower bulbs.
As we have several times in this column, to be a successful Orange County gardener we must remember where we live and garden. Yes, many northern, cold climate bulbs can be grown here in our mild Mediterranean climate. Like tropical fish in a heated aquarium or Polar Bears fed special diets in the modified confines of a zoo, with enough work and some losses along the way, so too can we cultivate the “poster children” of the flower bulbs.
I suspect that, left to fend for themselves in Orange County, Polar Bears and tropical fish wouldn’t last long. This might also be said for most of the bulbs coming to Orange County from the fields of northern Europe. Today, over nine billion flower bulbs are produced each year in Holland, and about 7 billion of them are exported, with the U. S. the largest consumer of Dutch bulbs. That’s a staggering 562 bulbs grown by every Dutch man, woman and child.
For better or worse we garden at latitude of 33°. Our winters are mild and our summers are bone dry and warm. Our unique climate is not remotely similar to that of The Netherlands, where 80% of the world’s tulips and hyacinths are produced.
However, far from Holland, there are a few other parts of the world that have a nearly identical Mediterranean climate to ours in Orange County. One of those places is the southwestern portion of South Africa, where over 1,400 species of bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes flourish naturally, in a climate nearly identical to that of Orange County.
As a gardener along the coast of Orange County it may be wise to consider a few of these climate-appropriate bulbs. Unlike their more famous northern cousins, many of the bulbs hailing from South Africa and parts of the Mediterranean basin will thrive in our gardens. Most Mediterranean bulbs will be smaller in flower size, but will make up for it in their ability to multiply and return each year, often with no effort from the gardener.
Unfortunately, Mediterranean climate bulbs are poorly represented in garden centers, discount stores and home centers. These are small bulbs; even at maturity they are only a fraction of the size of the Dutch specialties and are easily passed over. Their names are foreign to most gardeners . . . Babiana, Brodiea, Calochortus, Chasmanthe, Dichelostemma, Ipheion, Ixia, Lachenalia, Leucojum, Moraea, Nerine, Oxalis, Scadoxus, Spiloxene, Tritelleia, Tritonia and Urginia. Here are just a few that you might find and that I recommend.
These plants of small stature plants are among the most popular of the South African flower bulbs and are ideally suited to local gardens. Intensely fragrant, they are best used in the front of beds or in pots where their flowers and fragrance are best enjoyed. The bulbs and plants are small, but inexpensive; so mass large quantities closely together for the best display.
Related to Freesia’s, but about twice as tall, at 14 inches, Sparaxis are one of the most colorful Mediterranean bulbs and will naturalize in our gardens. The brilliant star-shaped flowers, usually in warm shades of orange, red, yellow, white, purple or pink are upward facing and look especially at home under our bright, sunny Orange County skies. Like Freesia’s, be sure to pack the bulbs close together for the best show.
Iris represent a large group of plants ranging from alpine meadows to desert edges. The popular group referred to as Dutch Iris, have little to do with Holland. Instead, they are a complex cross of several wild species that grow in the arid parts of Northern Africa, Portugal and Spain to southern France, in climates much like ours. Dutch Iris are among the showiest of the bulbs that will naturalize in our local gardens. Easily tucked into most gardens because of their tall narrow, upright stems, they look terrific planted in large wandering drifts or in pockets of one to two dozen bulbs. With almost no effort they’ll be back every spring with a delightful display.
Tulip bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ and Tulip clusiana var. chrysantha
Yes there are even a few tulips that will grow easily here. These are not the big, gaudy Dutch hybrids. Mediterranean tulips are smaller, more delicate in appearance and more relaxed in their presentation. Growing wild in the Mediterranean basin, in a climate almost identical to ours, these are as easy as any bulb can be in Orange County. The dime-sized bulbs should be left in the garden all year where they will multiply at will.
These are just a few of the hundreds of little known Mediterranean bulbs that thrive in our local gardens. With almost no fussing by the gardener these will multiply and return for years to come. I will warn you that only a few Mediterranean-climate bulbs will be found on the shelves of gardens centers, pushed aside by the multitudes of more familiar Dutch imports. If you get hooked on warm-climate bulbs, like I am, you will need to feed your passion through mail-order or through groups like the Pacific Bulb Society (www.pacificbulbsociety.org).
Your garden awaits.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar