We see the pictures: Bright, tall, gorgeous tulips that decorate the garden every spring. Unfortunately, those pictures seem to be the closest we warm-climate Southwesterners can get to having tulips in our own yards. But if you think that just because you live in the Southwest you can’t enjoy the beauty that bulbs bring to the garden, think again! There are a number of bulbs hardy to our region that we can grow, offering a splash of terrific color – and even naturalizing in our gardens.
Rain lilies, like Zephyranthes candida, pop up almost unexpectedly after summer and fall showers.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Crinums take poor soils well, and their large root systems help them thrive for years in a landscape.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
One great Southwest selection is the little rain lily. Have you ever seen them popping up in summer or fall? They seem to appear out of nowhere, in rocky, difficult soils where you wouldn’t expect anything to grow, and in meadows crowded with grasses and forbs. After a rain shower, they can suddenly bring new life to worn-out landscapes with bright colors and delicate foliage. (Truly, you’ll wonder where they came from because they were nowhere in sight yesterday.)
There are at least two recognized genera and several species of rain lily native to the Southwest, plus a multitude of hybrids in the trade. The little plants come in white, lemon yellow, rose-pink and hues in between.
Botanists must have fun with rain lily because they name and rename it endlessly. Is it a Zephyranthes or a Cooperia? Habranthus, you say? It’s taxonomic chaos. Those names that are most prominent in the trade – and in the landscape – appear to have a stronghold on the genus Zephyranthes. (We can live with that, can’t we?)
Likely the most widespread of these bulbs is a night-flowering species (pollinated by moths) – Zephyranthes chlorosolen (also known as Cooperia drummondii). This beauty is found through the Texas Hill Country of central Texas, the south Texas Brush Country, and into Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mexico and New Mexico. As I mentioned, it blooms at night, but if you rise early you can still see their white flowers dotting the landscape after early summer to fall showers.
Rain lilies appear to know the difference between thundershowers and garden-hose water – it seems you can’t ever get them to flower uniformly with a sprinkler. My delicate little Zephyranthes candida limits its growth to rounded, pendulous leaves until we’re blessed with rain – preferably thunderstorms – that bring just enough nitrogen to force it to produce pretty white flowers with golden throats.
Plant your rain lilies in the fall, 5 inches deep into a well-composted soil that’s been tilled and rid of weeds. Put them in their own little sunny part of your perennial garden where they’ll be left undisturbed. Keep them moist – but not wet – in winter, and they’ll multiply on their own. You’ll have feasts of rain lily color for years to come.
If you’re looking for blooms with a wonderful scent and truly lush foliage, give crinums a whirl. Cherished since Colonial times, these pretty plants have been stalwarts in Southern gardens. Crinums are fantastically robust and long-lived – easily outlasting old fences and water wells long after the wooden structures rot away. You’ve probably seen the blooms, still flowering in white, pink, rose or combinations of those colors, and wondered who planted them near the old, abandoned farmhouse.
Botanically known as Crinum bulbispermum, crinums do best in full sun or afternoon shade. They flower in late spring when they reach 24-40 inches tall. Flowers appear in large clusters atop pendulous, strap-like, glossy-green leaves. Be careful where you plant these lovelies, though: Due to their large size, they may overwhelm a landscape if not positioned carefully.
Crinums are popular not only for their exotic blooms, but for their amazing ability to thrive in poor soils and erratic climates. They do quite well in heavy clays, nutrient-poor sandy soils and in flooded depressions. Their growth cycles respond to moisture, and they produce flowers and foliage after rains. For bulbous plants, crinums have huge root systems that may spread as far as 6 feet in all directions. Likely for this reason they’ll flower more prolifically and continuously when left in the ground for several years.
Plant your crinums deeply, at least 12-15 inches in well-prepared soil – and use ample mulching. They respond to slow-release fertilizers or water-soluble plant food. Pouring a solution of manure tea or liquid manure over the leaves is said to stimulate them to produce bloom spikes.
Crinums are striking in a landscape, flowering after each rain, and they make lovely cutflowers. In the garden, they should be divided only every three to five years. They do well in containers, too!
So don’t give up on planting bulbs in your warm Southwest garden! Try some of these pretty bloomers, and you’ll find yourself enjoying beautiful flowers for years.