Bulbs go far beyond the typical tulip. Our resident gardening expert shares what grows in our harsh desert growing conditions.
The more years that I garden, the more I discover how much there is to learn. A case in point is my new love for bulbs in the garden. Like most people, I considered bulbs to be the tulips, hyacinths, and similar spring blooming bulbs imported from the Netherlands. In fact, bulbs are actually defined much more broadly, to include corms, rhizomes, and tubers, as well as the familiar teardrop shaped bulbs.
I also once believed bulbs simply would not grow in the desert Southwest. It is too hot and dry. The soil is too alkaline. It is too warm in the winter for many of the Dutch bulbs, but too cold in winter for many of the tropical bulbs. I viewed bulbs as expensive annuals that had a short bloom time and were not worth the trouble to plant every year for such limited performance.
Then, I discovered a native blooming bulb: rain lily, which, as its name suggests, blooms after the rains. This native bulb thrives in our challenging garden conditions. It blooms in spring, summer, or fall, depending on our rains. The bulbs multiply rapidly. The compact clumps have chive-like leaves year-round, but the blooms are such a pleasant surprise. One day the plant is a grassy clump, the next there spikes of white lilies.
Over the last few years, more than a dozen flowering bulb varieties have snuck into my garden, from a few irises to daylilies to amaryllis. Like many gardeners, I am desperate for blooms in the winter months, so I’ve planted daffodils and paperwhites in my garden. These Narcissus species bulbs bloom from December (paperwhites) through February (daffodils) when little else is blooming.
Somewhere along the line, I planted what were labeled daffodil bulbs. However, a wild species tulip called ‘Lady Jane’ grew instead. I was delighted by their candy cane red and white stripes. These tulips open in the daytime and close up at night. The bulbs begin blooming in February and have taken over a large section of a perennial bed.
Every spring in the Alameda Depot Historic District, I would stop to admire small blue star flowers popping up at the old homes without any visible care from a gardener. Anything that tough wins my respect—and, usually, a place in my garden. A gardening friend who had this bulb in abundance gifted me several clumps, which I scattered around my flowerbeds in hopes that at least one clump would land in a place it would call home. Now this lovely blue flower blooms in the early spring amongst the sleeping perennials.
What would our gardens look like without gardening friends who share their successes? The charming pink oxalis that is so showy in the spring with its clover shaped leaves also was a gift from a friend. It blooms early in the spring, disappears during the hot months, but sports its tiny blooms again in the fall.
Many people plant bulbs strictly for spring blooms. However, in our desert, some of the best performing bulbs are the summer bulbs. When I had the nursery, I had a charming gentleman who would show up each year with boxes of a hardy, red amaryllis bulb. I would pot them up for purchase, and many local gardeners have these in their gardens now—a tribute to the man’s gardening wife. I’ve also discovered many of the showy amaryllis bulbs available for the holidays are winter hardy in a sheltered garden. The wide strapped leaves of these bulbs are a nice contrast with the smaller leaves of many perennials throughout the summer months.
Spider lilies appear delicate, so it is hard to believe they will thrive in our desert gardens. I’ll admit, I planted mine in part shade since I wouldn’t expect such a fragile flower to withstand summer sun. That bit of shade allows the flower to bloom longer and with a more brilliant red color.
Like so many people, I’ve added traditional orange daylilies and Stella lilies to my garden for summer bloom. Stella lilies bloom in waves from late spring through late fall. Daylilies don’t even wilt or droop in our summer heat, and the orange color is a great contrast with blue catmint and bright pink cherry sage.
Now that I’ve accepted bulbs in my garden, I’m exploring adding more tough bulbs—including corms, rhizomes, and tubers. The adventure has just begun for this gardener!