Mid to late summer can be a tricky time in the flower garden, with many perennials having had their main burst of flowering and now concentrating on growing a little to store some more fat to ensure a good flowering next season. Thank God for those long term flowering plants like Dahlias and day lilies that seem to just keep on giving more months on end, and of course, for those annuals that have prolonged flowering periods.
Fortunately there are also some that flower at this time of the year, including a few very attractive bulbs with spectacular flowers. I have a great love of the exuberant Central and South American show offs, the Jockeys Caps, or Tigridias to give them their proper name. These are members of the vast Iris family (immediately noticeable by their arrangement for floral parts in threes) and are mainly forms of the one species, T. pavonia, although there are other species in cultivation, sometimes to be found on the lists of bulb specialists. I have grown a number of these rarer species, but they are quite tender and it is difficult to over winter the bulbs. They rot in the soil and are attacked by aphids if stored dry.
The hardier garden hybrids are a different kettle of fish. As long as they are grown in well drained soil and in a sunny aspect, they will thrive in Wairarapa conditions and multiply nicely, without ever getting to be a nuisance. The most commonly grown form is probably the bright red form, although a quick look around plant catalogues shows the pink form is the one most offered. I like the red form, as it is a bright cherry red unseen in any true irises, but I think my favourite colour is probably yellow.
You would think that with a name like Tigridia, these bulbs would have been named after tigers, and would accordingly have striped flowers. Not so – they are solid coloured across the main part of the petals, but the central area of each flower is spotted and splotched with a co0ntrasting colour, usually deep red. In the red flowered forms the central portion is yellow based, with red /maroon spots. The most spectacularly different form I have grown is the species T. duranguense, a Mexican species with mauve flowers that are prominently mottled all over the flower. There are many other species, mostly unavailable in New Zealand, to tempt the keen bulb collector.
These cheery flowers only last a day each, but they are carried in a long succession, with flowering lasting for over a month usually. I find it pays to grow the different colours in different parts of the garden as the plants set seed very easily, and the red strain seems to swamp the other colours. Tigridias are very easily raised from seed, and a range of colours would soon give rise to some interesting forms for the person interested in starting out plant breeding, as they flower from seed within two years.
There might be another reason for growing these plants – they are apparently delicious to eat! Luther Burbank, the great American plant fiddler and creator of the Burbank plum, the Plumcot and the Shasta Daisy, discovered that these lovely bulbs were edible. He said: “When cooked like potatoes, or made into a stew, they constitute a really delicious vegetable. To my taste the bulb of the tiger plant is at least the equal of any vegetable under cultivation. It is also highly nutritious. I am not sure that it has an equal among the vegetables of our gardens in its combination of nutritiousness and appetising flavour.