Mention “hardy bulbs” to a Southwesterner, and chances are he’ll think you’re starting a conversation:
St. Joseph lily is one of the most hardy of the amaryllis selections.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Lily of the Nile cultivars can range from 15 inches to 5 feet tall. All bloom profusely when the weather is warm.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Paper whites, like this Narcissus ‘Ziva’, bloom from winter to early spring and have a lovely aroma.
Photo Credit: International Flower Bulb Centre
“Howdy, Bub, yourself,” he’ll say.
“Um, no,” you’ll reply. “I said, ‘hardy bulbs.’”
“Never heard of him.”
Truth is, to most folks around here, a bulb is either (A) that round thing Thomas Edison invented or (B) a daffodil. Oh, sure, some of us have grown crocus alongside our sages and onions in our gardens, but those other bulb-type plants, like tulips and dahlias, we mostly just see in garden magazines.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that there are quite a few bulbs – yes, hardy bulbs – that we Southwesterners can plant right now (in fall) for a splash of color. And get this: They’ll naturalize in your garden so you can enjoy their blooms for years to come.
Let’s start with amaryllis. No, not that wide-petalled Dutch amaryllis sold for Christmas bloom, but the one known as St. Joseph lily (or botanically, Hippeastrum x johnsonii).
In cultivation for nearly 200 years, St. Joseph lily is one cold-hardy amaryllis, thriving wherever the ground doesn’t freeze deeply – which is perfect for many of our Southwestern soils. And it’s a terrific bulb for our region because it perennializes rapidly. It’s large, crimson-colored, trumpetlike flowers rise in clusters of four to six atop 2-foot stems. In most of the Southwest, you can expect the spicy-scented blossoms to appear in early April.
St. Joseph lily should be planted in fall or early spring, on 6- to 9-inch intervals about 2 inches deep. The bulbs need full sun to light shade, and like many other plants, they do best in slightly acidic to neutral soils – but St. Joseph lily will thrive in heavy clays, too. If you live in a particularly cold climate in the Southwest, good drainage in winter is key to the plant’s hardiness.
Be aware that St. Joseph lily is considered poisonous if ingested (which might be why it’s said to be a deer-resistant bulb), but butterflies, bees and birds seem to really like it. Another bonus with this plant is that it’s suitable for growing indoors.
Another nice bulb for our region is lily of the Nile (Agapanthus). In the Southwest, we really don’t see this bloomer that often, but in other parts, it’s widely used. In fact, I’ve unofficially dubbed the plant the National Bulb of Beverly Hills, CA. Have you ever been there? You’ll find this bulb growing in nearly every home landscape!
This beauty thrives in warm climates! It’s hardy only to about Zone 8, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow it if you live farther north. It just means you need to treat it like an annual or a container plant (moving it to a protected area in winter).
Lily of the Nile is a lovely South African native that blooms profusely throughout summer and into fall. There are many cultivars, starting at about 15 inches tall and reaching higher. The most successful garden Agapanthus in our parts is a 1990 introduction from the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum called ‘Ellamae’, which produces 3-foot-tall clusters of deep green, strap-like, pendulous leaves topped by 8-inch clusters of blue-violet flowers that appear in late June. Other cultivars feature flowers of white, deep violet and various bluish hues.
These bulbs should be planted 6 inches deep and spaced 6-8 inches apart. In the Southwest, the plant grows best in full morning sun with shade during the hottest part of the afternoon. Good soil preparation and ample watering are essential for these beauties to thrive in our region. When fall rolls around, divide your lily of the Nile bulbs for next year’s flowers.
Finally, a word about Narcissus species: the fall-flowering Narcissus papyraceus in particular. Better known as paper whites (or paperwhites), this is likely the most popular Narcissus species, and the one you’ll see naturalized throughout the warm regions of the world.
I have fond thoughts of paper whites. They surround the back of my mother’s house in south Texas and seem to pop up when the rest of her garden is going dormant. She planted them many years ago, and they’re tough little guys, having survived my errant lawn mower when I was a teenager.
Sporting strongly fragrant, glisteningly white flowers, paper whites bloom from winter to early spring and are popular in Zone 8, where they brighten the otherwise dreary season. In north Texas, where I live (Zone 7), we use them as annuals (unless you force them indoors. But even if they only last the one year, that’s fine – the beauty and memories they’ll bring to the garden make growing these guys well-worth it.
Fall is the right time to plant paper whites. You can crowd them a bit, 6 inches deep into the ground in a sunny spot. Be sure to mulch over them, and then sit back and enjoy the bright cool-season color!
So, Bub, now’s the time! Grab some bulbs, get into your Southwestern garden and plant away. With a little elbow grease, you can enjoy bunches of blooms for years to come!