Late summer and early autumn is a great time for us bulb lovers. The very first of the spring flowering bulbs have started arriving in the garden centres – the anemones and freesias usually – and catalogues start arriving filled with new daffodil varieties and a range of the rare and exotic for the connoisseur.
But this time of the year is also exiting because a number of other bulbs start to come into their own – the summer deciduous ones.
We generally associate the trait of losing leaves over harsh growing times with deciduous shrubs and trees, the majority of which defoliate for the winter. This is because they would otherwise be in water deficit – the cold soil means the trees cannot take up much water, while they would continue to lose water through transpiration if they still had leaves.
There are a few trees from hotter climates that do exactly the opposite – they drop all their leaves over the dry and hot summer, when again they would lose more water than they could take up. Plants from the hotter areas of Africa tend to do this.
Bulbs are, in effect, deciduous too, except instead of dying back to a perennial or woody system, they defoliate entirely and survive in the form of swollen roots. Most bulbs do this by growing over winter and early spring, flowering and setting seed in early summer, then dying down until the autumn rains arrive, when they start the process over again.
Others, though, do this differently, and they prefer to like dormant over spring and summer, then burst forth with their flowers in autumn, grow until the spring, then die down again for the summer.
My mother had a warm north-facing bed underneath her bedroom window which was filled with bulbs – lots of old fashioned freesias and muscari, but also big patches of three of these autumn flowering beauties.
The first of these was the clear white rain lily, Zephyranthes candida, also erroneously called an autumn crocus. This is probably the hardiest member of its family, and is a reliable late summer flowering bulb, that reputedly flowers with the first of the autumn rains. I am not so sure that the trigger is the arrival of rain, as I have grown this in one of the beds at the back of the section, and it has reliably flowered in late February/early March each year, despite receiving regular watering as I keep the rest of the bed alive.
The leaves are deep green and similar to thin daffodil leaves. The flowers pop out of papery sheaths and are pure glistening white, about the size of a garden crocus. It is a good garden plant without being extremely special.
Last year I noticed someone advertising some of the rare species and hybrids from the family on TradeMe, and took the chance to increase my meagre stock of these. The four or five varieties I purchased are all tenderer than my garden stock so I grew them in pots in the glasshouse, thinking that I could also better control the water supply that way.
This week the first of them came out, and what a glorious surprise it was. I have read about Z. grandiflora for years, and seen photographs of it in various books, but I had no concept of just how much bigger it was than Z. candida.
The 100mm flowers, which are a luscious pink, similar to the colour of belladonna lilies (to which they are quire closely related) are more open than Z. candida, and are held atop 100mm long scapes. They are certainly more exuberant than their white-flowered counterparts, and a clump of them makes a fabulous sight.
There is now a range of hybrids that bulb fanciers can sometimes get access to, with yellow, orange and salmon forms all to be found, although none is readily available. The related genus of Habranthus can also be found from specialist growers.
By the way - you might actually call these rain lilies the true wind flowers, as that is what there botanical name means - Zephyr= wind, Anthes= flowers.