Sunday, March 17, 2013

Autumn flowering bulbs

One of the ironies about this time of the year is that as well as being the main planting season for the wide range of spring flowering bulbs, it is also the time for the autumn-flowering bulbs to start putting on their displays. 
Probably the best known of these autumn flowering bulbs are the naked ladies, Amaryllis belladonna¸ their long-stemmed clusters of lily-shaped flowers being a feature of many older gardens, and a plethora of country driveways.  But my favourites for this time of the year are much smaller and altogether more delicate looking, and although they are related to naked ladies, they are respectably clothed in bright green foliage when they display their flowers.
I am talking about the bright yellow Sternbergia lutea,  often known by the common name of Lily of the Field, but you are more likely to come across it as one of the many “Autumn Crocuses”.  It has crocus-shaped flowers of daffodil yellow, but this charmer is not actually a lily, a crocus or a daffodil, although it is closest to being a daffodil as it is in fact a member of the Amaryllis family, as are Narcissus.  A native of Italy, it has been cultivated in Western gardens for many centuries, its bright autumn flowers, appearing with the first autumn rains usually, being much appreciated.
In our garden the flowers usually appear in about mid-March, perhaps a little earlier if we have been watering a lot, and they do look just like bright yellow crocus flowers.  They grow about 100 mm high, and have leaves that appear shortly after the flowers.  The leaves are flat like some daffodil leaves, rather than grass-shaped as is the case with crocuses.  They stay on the plant through the winter and into the spring then fall off for the heat of summer.
My clump is planted in well-drained soil in a very sunny site, and it has slowly increased over the years.  The original half a dozen bulbs have probably grown to about 20 now and we get a good succession of flowers for about three or four weeks. My mother used to have a large clump in very similar conditions, along a north-facing wall, and it thrived for her.  I suspect that, in the right place, this bulb might even naturalise, although I have never read of it happening in New Zealand.
This bulb takes autumn pride of place in a garden that is, more or less, devoted to yellow flowers.  I know lots of gardeners are a bit afraid of yellow, thinking it a bit too strident a colour, but I think it is hard to beat at this time of the year, and there are many, many yellow flowered forms of lots of my favourite plants.
Other yellows flowering with the Sternbergias include a soft yellowish dahlia with brown foliage named ‘David’, our older son’s name; some bright Gaillardias planted as annuals about ten years ago and still ticking over; a bright yellow Hemerocallis, and a cute dwarf red hot poker, Kniphofia.   I have lost its label but I think it the well-known older variety called ‘Little Maid’.  This has grass-like foliage that grows about 30 cm high and has a succession of having a wonderful display of soft yellow pokers which gradually age to cream, which gives the clump an appealing contrast as the flowers age.  The flowers grow to about 60 cm. I find it pays to cut the spent flower heads on these dwarf varieties – they usually look past their best before the very top flowers have faded, but they can easily be pulled off.  Doing this also seems to spark the plant into further burst of flowers, extending the season by a few weeks.


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