Six on Saturday: Dramatic Geophytes

Oxalis regnellii share a pot with tuberous non-stop Begonia and Colocasia ‘Black Coral.

Many of us welcome spring with a variety of early bloomers like Crocus, Iris, Narcissus, Muscari and Hyacinths.  There is a huge variety of bulbs that we can plant each fall in anticipation of spring flowers.  Brent and Becky Heath’s bulb catalog is my favorite fall garden catalog, and I pour over it for hours each year in search of those perfect flowers to add to our late winter and early spring garden.

Bulbs and other geophytes are easy plants that offer some guarantee of success for any gardener.  In fact, Amaryllis bulbs remain popular at the holidays because so little skill is required to produce a beautiful display of winter-time flowers.  Wax coated Amaryllis bulbs, now easily available at the grocery store, require nothing except a sunny spot indoors where they may grow.

Tuberous Begonia and Oxalis enjoy moist, fertile soil in partial shade. Both perform well as ‘houseplants’ during the cooler months of the year. This Begonia was a gift, which makes it all the more beautiful.

One charm of bulbs, and other geophytes, is their ability to live without roots or leaves.  When we buy a bag of bulbs, tubers or rhizomes, we get a self-contained little package of life.  These perennial plants generally begin growth of their roots and stems, bloom, and then die back all in the space of a few months.  They spend some portion of each year dormant, and so can live out of the soil, even with their roots dried up.

Red Lycoris radiata suddenly appear after a heavy rain in late August or September. Dormant Narcissus bulbs rest under these pots, waiting for late winter when their growth will begin anew.

As much as I love reading Brent and Becky’s fall bulb catalog, the spring and summer catalog is even more interesting.  There are many warm season geophytes to enliven our summer garden.   Some of these, like Lycoris radiata, spider lily, are quite hardy and once planted just grow better year to year.   We also enjoy hardy Hedychium, Canna lilies, Crinum lilies, Voodoo lilies, Calla lilies and some varieties of hardy Colocasia. We can leave these in the ground year round, simply cutting back old growth after the first frost in the fall.

Gardeners may not rely on summer bulbs and tubers as much as they do on spring blooming geophytes, because many summer blooming varieties are tropical.  They may be perennial in Zones 9, 10 and 11, but aren’t hardy in more temperate climates. Some gardeners tell me that they just treat these plants like annuals. 

Caladium ‘Pink Splash’ is hardy in Zone 11. Caladiums don’t like temperatures much below 60F.

Keeping tropical varieties from year to year involves storing them in a frost-free area.  Some of these tender bulbs, tubers and rhizomes will rot when both wet and cold, so they need to be stored dry.  Others do very well left in their pots, in a frost free and sheltered location.  Since they also grow and increase each year, it seems a very small effort to keep these beautiful plants alive from one year to the next.

Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ mixes well with Caladiums. Both are known simply as ‘Elephant Ears.’

We dig all of the tender Caladiums and other geophytes, dry and store them; or bring their pots indoors; before Thanksgiving. I water our Alocasias and Colocasias lightly through the winter, where they continue to send up leaves in the living room, garage or basement. 

Summer geophytes add drama and bright color to the garden.  Even those with insignificant flowers provide interesting, often variegated leaves.  Lilies support pollinators.  And just like spring blooming bulbs, summer ones also mark the passing seasons.  Spider lilies, also known as ‘hurricane lilies,’ always bloom after a heavy rain in late August and September.  Butterfly ginger lilies, Hedychium coronarium, also wait until late summer to open their fragrant white flowers.   We look forward to them as signs that autumn is only a breath away.

Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ spends winter in the basement, sending up new leaves from time to time while waiting for summer to come back outside.
With appreciation to The Propagator, who hosts Six on Saturday each week.

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