A selection of autumn-flowering bulbs

Don’t know about you, but when I think of bulbs I think of spring – yet there are plenty of bulbs that flower at other times of the year too. And although the title of this post says ‘autumn’, in mid- to late March we’ve experienced hot, humid days and I’d have called it late summer, despite what the calendar says.

Wandering through a lovely garden in Morrinsville I came across a flowering clump of Colchicum speciosum. Commonly called autumn crocus, “they are among the few autumn-flowering bulbs that are sufficiently vigorous to thrive in normal garden situations”, according to Jack Hobbs and Terry Hatch in Bulbs for NZ Gardeners (Godwit, 1994), who go on to add that C. speciosum is “delightfully fragrant”.

Colchicum speciosum. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The bulbs are native to northern Turkey, northern Iran and the Caucasus region and are named after Colchis, an area on the Black Sea in Georgia. They are related to crocus but not closely – one way to tell them apart, besides the autumn flowering, is that crocuses have three stamens and Colchicums six.

The Telegraph’s garden archive says Colchicums need moisture-retentive, fertile soil to flower well and are best grown in a sheltered spot that enjoys afternoon sun (which encourages a good succession of flowers). Plant  7.5cm to 10cm deep.

Enrich poorer soils by adding good, friable compost. However, if your soil tends to heavy, improve drainage by adding coarse grit. Top dress with well-rotted manure or garden compost during dormancy and use a foliar feed, such as seaweed extract, in spring. Don’t cut off unsightly leaves; they need to die down naturally to replenish the corm.

The trick for good flowering, as with many of these ‘naked’ blooms (they flower before foliage appears), is to leave the bulbs undisturbed, letting them naturalise and clump up – so if you can’t stand the sight of the dying foliage it might be best to plant them behind something low-growing to disguise the worst of it.

In case you think the advice to leave these bulbs undisturbed is a bit dramatic, learn from my mistake. About 4 years ago I divided a large group of white Amaryllis belladonna … and am still waiting for them to come back into flower!

A. belladonna is the true ‘naked lady’ and hails from the Cape Province of South Africa. These bulbs love good drainage and being sun-baked through the summer (plant with the necks above ground).

A mass flowering of Amaryllis belladonna in Wellington’s historic Bolton Street Cemetery. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The name Amaryllis is derived from the Greek ‘to sparkle’, while the Latin belladonna means ‘beautiful lady’. A pretty name for a flower that is particularly striking en masse.

Native to South America, Zephyranthes candida (rain lily) flowers in late summer after rain (or watering) with several flushes often occurring until late autumn. This is another crocus-type flower, although a much smaller plant than Colchicum speciosum at about 30cm high. Everything I read about Z. candida, which flowers with its erect, grassy foliage in place, says it ‘multiplies rapidly’ (so consider yourself warned).

Rain sparks Zephyranthes candida into flower. This photo was taken in Eden Garden, Auckland, where the bulbs were planted under big trees. Photo: Sandra Simpson



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