Growing up in New Jersey, I knew one diligent gardener: my Aunt Betty. Much of her acre or two had dappled shade from enormous beech and tulip trees, but in the spring, a carpet of flowers filled an area almost the size of a typical suburban California yard. Starting with a few bulbs, she had divided and spread them out until the entire area began to be “painted” with color as the snow melted.
Bulbs have a dramatic but ephemeral garden presence, whether you cluster them to fill a large area or get a delightful surprise when bulbs you’d forgotten about re-emerge.
California’s native bulbs and corms offer a range of possibilities. Some of them need winter rains to start growing but then must be kept dry all summer. Others can tolerate, or need, regular water. The ones that naturalize – multiply freely – can help fill a larger space, preferably weed-free. The delicate flowers can mingle with other bulbs, grasses, wildflowers or perennials. Bulbs that share the water needs of native shrubs can even enliven the understory. Now is the time to plant them, at the beginning of the rainy season.
Containers offer protection from gophers and are easy to move where you can enjoy them every day when they are in bloom. Be sure to use potting mix rather than garden soil, and add perlite, lava rock or pumice for better drainage. Use a pot large enough to provide good root space (at least 1-foot high). Once the yellowing leaves signal that it’s time to stop watering summer-dry varieties, you can move the pot to a shady, out-of-the-way spot. In late fall, remember to place the pot where it can get rain or be watered if it’s a dry winter or spring.
Although native nurseries and botanic gardens are a good source, some of the most garden-tolerant native bulbs are also available from Dutch bulb growers. If you know the botanical names, they are easy to find.
Recently, Annie’s Annuals and Perennials has started offering interesting cultivars (as bulbs, not as potted plants). Earlier this month, Annie’s had three native bulb varieties available:
• Dichelostemma x ‘Pink Diamond,’ also known as rosy firecracker brodiaea. This bulb has pink flower clusters atop 8- to 20-inch-high stems in early spring that lure hummingbirds and butterflies. It tolerates sandy and clay soil, full sun and part shade but needs summer-dry conditions.
• From April to June, Dichelostemma congestum. Also known as Ookow, this bulb has clusters of blue to purple flowers atop an 18- to 36-inch stem. It needs full sun and well-drained soil, naturalizes freely, attracts bees and butterflies, and tolerates summer water.
• Erythronium ‘Pagoda,’ also known as dog tooth violet and trout lily. This bulb sports 2-inch yellow flowers along 14-inch stems, and its wide leaves make it a good spring groundcover for moist, rich soil in part shade. It naturalizes and is deer- and rodent-resistant, but like the other bulbs, its goes dormant in summer.
Several other Brodiaeas and Triteleias are also garden-worthy, particularly the easy-to-find Queen Fabiola. Another native bulb that easily naturalizes is Allium unifolium, or single-leaf onion. Its 2- to 3-inch umbels of pink flowers top 1- to 2-inch stems from spring to early summer, and it tolerates clay soil and some summer water.