Flower Power

Words of advice on planting bulbs.


Allium giganteum, a variety of flowering onion, are Bay Area garden winners.

Photo by Chris Gladis (CC)

Want a May miracle? Bulb catalogues promise redemption: your weedy backyard littered with toys, your dry front yard with its 60-year-old juniper bushes, remarkably transformed into the most astonishing display of floral splendor. Lost in this Shangri-la vision is that your little corner of paradise must wait 11 months for the miracle to manifest. No matter—bulb catalogues appeal to our sense of hope, envy, and regret as we marvel at seas of daffodils and crocus spilling across spring hillsides: “Now why didn’t I do that?”

Luckily, planting bulbs is a great deal more certain than wishing you’d invested like Warren Buffet. The Bay Area is a wonderland for plants that do well in temperate zones. Some bulbs do great here while others struggle. If you have your heart set on a meadow of stunning yellow-and-white double early tulips, expect to pay a pretty penny year after year because they will not rebloom. And you might spend extra time eating out ’cause your fridge will be stacked with bulbs. In the East Bay, tulips need three weeks in the refrigerator before planting. That gives them enough cold to bloom spectacularly that first year—if the squirrels, raccoons, and deer don’t get them. Animals love tulips as much as we do.

Daffodils, on the other hand, will rebloom without a cold spell, needn’t take a winter siesta alongside your leftovers, and are poisonous so elude deer and the rest. Narcissus (the Latin name) are remarkably easy, often will re-bloom the following year and onward, and some varieties will even increase if they like the spot you’ve chosen for them. They don’t just come in yellow—try pink (plant in partial shade for the darkest hue), white (classic “Mount Hood” is a giant, almost ethereally beautiful ’dil), and some have red noses, like Rudolph. Some are even double (double in the daffodil realm resemble intricately folded origami), and these, astoundingly, are often the best come-backers. Their only downside is that in heavy rainfalls, their heads tilt towards the mud, and you might (sob) have to bring them inside. (Warning: don’t put daffs in with other cut flowers—the daffodils will cause the others to wilt quickly.)

In the East Bay, the many varieties of flowering onion—allium—are garden winners. Perhaps you’ve noticed masses of 3-foot-high plants topped by white, purple, or searing blue globes as big as the spinning planet Earth in your elementary school classroom. Those are alliums, and they, too, resist disease and deer. They bloom later than most daffodils, and when planted together do a fantastic job hiding the daffs’ fading leaves (let the leaves die back naturally,  as the bulbs need the energy for reblooming). There are many alliums, and most are true spectacles, deserving a big stage. Another in the showy realm is eremurus, with its giant spires of bold orange or yellow.

Don’t forget tiny: Tuck in crocus, often the first flower to bloom, California native Brodiaea, with its stars or tubes in vivid colors, and the blues of muscari, which look like a bit like smaller and thankfully droopy hyacinths. Muscari, too, are resistant to most herbivores, and they will spread.

Photo by Namazu-TRON (CC)

Naked Ladies, which originated in South Africa, are prodigious flowers here

Try South African bulbs. In fact, you may have some in your yard—according to the delightful website Telos Rare Bulbs, in Humboldt County’s Ferndale, Amaryllis belladonna (or Naked Lady to us lovers of the colloquial) is native to South Africa’s Cape Province in spite of its appearance almost everywhere. When a plant is that persistent in the face of complete neglect, embrace it!

While creating nirvana in your outside domains, force some paperwhites for indoors. All you need is a shallow dish and gravel or rocks. Put the paperwhites into the dish (three or more is good), scatter gravel two-thirds up the bulb, and then water about halfway up. Put them in a dark closet but remember to check. When the leaves start to peek out the top of the bulb, bring them into the light. Once they bloom, they perfume an entire room and are magnificent at Thanksgiving and beyond.

Where to get your bulbs? The most garish catalogue is often not your friend. Van Engelen is the wholesale arm of John Scheepers—if the quantities are too large, check out Scheepers. McClure & Zimmerman’s catalogue has illustrations and good descriptions. Both carry quality bulbs. And do use California purveyors such as Telos and Richmond’s Annie’s Annuals. Often the best quality is found right at home.


This report appears in the May edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.


Published online on May 17, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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