Posted on | September 27, 2011 | No Comments
It’s that extraordinary time of year again when so many autumn bulbs are coming into bloom to grace our gardens with their abundant though often delicate autumn colours. The Nerines, Colchicums, Amaryllis belladonna, Autumn Crocus, Cyclamen and autumn flowering snowdrops, yes snowdrops! There are also Scilla Autumnalis and Sternbergia lutea for the even more adventurous! Of course for those who like colour on their windowsills in the winter it is time to plant Hyacinths, daffodils (Narcissus ‘Paperwhite’) and I must not forget those ridiculously large flowered bulbs associated with Christmas Amaryllis Hippeastrum, with cracking large blooms that look like flowering loud speakers!
One of the most beautiful flowering autumn bulbs has to be Nerines, the most commonly grown being Nerine bowdenii also known as the ‘Gurneys Lily’. They are now in full bloom here at the Exotic Garden and really enjoying the warm weather. This delectable autumn gem flowers from September to early November, depending on weather conditions and are on the early side this year. They flower over quite a long period and look exceptional when established, as with time they can form substantial colonies. The green strap-like leaves emerge after flowering and survive the winter undamaged then die down completely as summer returns. In their native South Africa they hibernate through the dry period before the rains return. Each tall stalk is topped with five to ten trumpet-shaped, shocking-pink flowers with six recurved petals with flamboyant wavy edges.
Last year I purchased a few big forms named Nerine ‘Zeal Giant’ from Bob Brown at Cotswold Garden Flowers. It certainly lives up to its name as it has large clusters of up to twelve deep pink trumpet-shaped flowers each one 9cm across with swept back petals, all on long stems totalling 80cm in height – absolutely marvellous!
Another more diminutive but equally beautiful hybrid purchased was Nerine bowdenii ‘Stefanie’, a much shorter plant reaching up to about 60cm tall with tight bunches of 5-6cm spidery pale pink flowers with a slightly darker line down the centre of each recurved petal. This fine hybrid will flower to perfection from October to November.
A number of species can be successfully grown under glass – one of my favourites being the floral firework - Nerine sarniensis also known as the ‘Guernsey Lily’. This rather interesting common name is said to be from a consignment of bulbs from South Africa destined for Holland which were cast from a sinking ship in 1659 off the coast of Guernsey which subsequently took root. Whether this story is botanical legend or not, this highly desirable Nerine has been cultivated for more than three centuries on the Island of Guernsey and continues to be grown there today for the cut flower market. The bulbs begin active growth in early autumn with the emergence of the flower-buds, followed shortly after by the foliage. The upright stalks carry seven to twelve flowers with erect stamens which are particularly conspicuous due to the recurved petals. The most desirable forms have exceedingly showy intense red flowers, though Nerine sarniensis can also be found in colours ranging from crimson to scarlet and from pale pink to deep rose-pink and there is also a rather delectable pure white form.
For sheer stature nothing can beat the beauty of Amaryllis belladonna, another South African native with great garden worthiness. It is also known as the ‘Belladonna Lily’ and ‘Naked lady’ because it comes into flower like the Nerines well before its foliage appears and like the Nerines it is completely dormant during the summer months. From dry ground in early autumn the large bulbs produce pale brown flowering spikes from 1-2ft tall, from which clusters of 2-12 large funnel-shaped flowers are formed that can be from 3-4ins across with six recurved petals. They can be either white or pink to purple in colour. There is nothing like a group of these or preferably dozens of them growing in a hot sun baked position preferably against a south facing wall where they will excel.
Did I mention autumn flowering Snowdrops? I was reminded of these when I had the pleasure of visiting Nigel Colborn’s garden in Lincolnshire last week when I was giving a lecture to the South Lincolnshire Hardy Plant Society. Galanthus reginae-olgae and Galanthus peshmenii flower from September to October and certainly make you look twice! They look just the same as the late winter flowering ones and are equally as beautiful, though a true galanthophile would know the difference!
Then there are the autumn flowering Crocus such as Crocus kotschyanus, with beautiful pale lilac, open goblet-shaped blooms with creamy-yellow stamens from September to November, followed by narrow, green leaves. This is a stunning autumn-flowering crocus which is ideal for naturalising in a dry, sunny spot in the garden.
Pulchellus is another species with pale lilac with darker veins and fragrant as well – perfect for naturalising. Speciosus is another beauty that is lilac-blue with darker veining and flowers from September to November. There are of course many more worth hunting out to grace your garden at the twilight end of the year.
If you like your Crocuses to have huge outsized flowers, then you have to grow Colchicums for their sheer audacity and size of blooms. Colchicum autumnale is also known as ‘autumn crocus’ or ‘naked ladies’ and is the best known species.
It produces purple, pink or white flowers that resemble the crocus but much larger and flower from September to October. After flowering they produce a rosette of dark leathery wide green leaves that can become rather untidy, so best grown where they can do their own thing undisturbed! Several other species are available such as Colchicum speciosum, C. album, C. corsicum and C. agrippinum. C. autumnale is often sold in full flower as a bare bulb. If you purchase them as the flowers are going over you can often get them for a much lower price as garden centres like to get rid of them as they look as though they are dying, but are perfect for planting.
There are so many bulbs that flower at this wonderful time of year that we are almost spoilt for choice and with such a warm weekend, why not venture out and see how many autumn flowering bulbs you can find!