September 8th, 2006
3. First Love–Southern Bulbs

oxblood lily
2006-09-10. Despite my many dead-ends in bulb trials, I can always count on the original cast to pull through for me when the going gets tough.

In one of Allen Lacy’s books he recalls how bearded irises awakened his passion for plants as a child. Later he says that he no longer grows bearded irises and explains the reasons for giving them up. I read this when I was in love with bearded irises myself and so I was shocked that anyone could be so fickle.

Now years later with several love affairs under my belt, I can understand better how plant passions rise and wane. Annie in Austin reminds me that I’m not the gardener I was when I began 13 years ago; might I be looking for change? Before I answer, let me look back and recall those first loves, not just for the sake of nostalgia but to see what I can discover about this garden and this gardener.

I inherited a well-established landscape and so I felt no requirement to design a garden. My approach was to tweak and twiddle. I’d look out the window while doing the dishes and watch where the light fell at certain times of the day and think, “What would look good there?”

Beginning in fall the first year my garden revealed its secrets, heirloom bulbs: oxblood lilies, red spider lilies, garlic chives, oxalis, paperwhite narcissus (two kinds), ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils, summer snowflakes, starch hyacinths, bearded iris, and rainlilies. Bulbs appeal to my acquisitive nature. It’s hard to know whether I get more pleasure from watching them bloom or digging them up.

The farthest north I’ve lived in America is Las Vegas so I knew I couldn’t grow the traditional spring bulbs hyped in catalogs and garden books. A friend attended a lecture by Scott Ogden at Barton Springs Nursery and brought me a three page list of “Garden Bulbs for Central Texas”. Excited by the possibilities of bulbs suited to our clime but completely ignorant of any of the bulbs on the list, I bought Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South; it was my bible for years.

I felt fortunate to have a yard which already had so many heirloom bulbs. I had a difficult time (in those days before the internet) finding sources for the bulbs I was falling in love with in print. I received a catalog from McClure & Zimmerman. Here, described in straightforward text in pages 3 columns wide, listed alphabetically were all the bulbs I’d ever wanted. (I still prefer their print catalog to their online catalog which I find annoying to navigate.)

Over the years I’ve purchased Acidanthera bicolor, Crocus speciosus ‘Cassiope’ and ‘Conqueror’, Crocus tommasianus, ‘Angelique’ tulips, the daffodils ‘Quail,’ ‘Trevithian’, ‘Jetfire’, ‘Triparite’, and ‘Minnow’ and the Alliums neopolitanum and sphaerocephalon. These all bloomed beautifully and came back for a year or two. But unlike my dream of bulbs naturalizing and my collection growing exponentially, these bulbs decreased year after year and I no longer have any of them. Then there’s the true lilies; I never expected them to survive Texas.

Should I also mention the caladiums, gladiolus, amaryllis, sprekelia, hymenocallis, crinum and canna here? They aren’t completely dead but neither are they thriving.

I did successfully introducing five bulbs: Tulipa clusiana, Hyacinthoides hispanica, Zephyranthes grandiflora, St. Joseph’s Lily, and the diminuitive daffodil ‘Hawera’ (which was packed as a bonus from McClure & Zimmerman.)

So I’m basically back where I started with bulbs. Okay, my oxblood lily collection has expanded from 30 bulbs in the front yard to over 1000 in a special garden made just for them. But when those other bulbs I bought disappeared, I became frustrated with the effort especially since most bulbs bloom only a couple of weeks out of the year. My attention was drawn to more showy flowers and I stopped buying bulbs.

Lesson Learned
Bulbs (rhizomes, tubers, and corms) are my stealth success. They make a big splash in the design only once in awhile. All my bulbs benefit from lifting and dividing. Not all of them require it but the soil they grow in does. Tree roots again. So my dreams of naturalized drifts of species bulbs never materialized.

As I looked over my bulb lists and photos while writing this post, I could feel the old longings stirring. If I reset my expectations and think of bulbs like other short-lived perennials, then I could consider buying bulbs again. I would love to reacquaint myself the daffodil ‘Quail’–it has a luscious orange scent and was the most vigorous of all the daffocils I tried. I think it might have rotted in one of our very wet years rather than withered in one of very dry years.

I’d also like the fall crocuses again. They are very small but they are charming in the buffalograss.

Despite my many dead-ends in bulb trials, I can always count on the original cast to pull through for me when the going gets tough.

If you live in central Texas, I’d love to know what bulbs you’ve grown and which ones failed or succeeded for you and over what period of time. I’m particularly interested in bulbs which have lasted more than 5 years.

If you are looking for a source for southern heirloom bulbs there is a new company in north Texas, The Southern Bulb Co which has been in the news lately. I haven’t ordered from them yet but their catalog has all the tried and true bulbs in my back yard. However, if you live in Austin, I can make you a better deal on oxblood lilies than $9 a bulb.

oxblood lily
I notice the oxblood lilies are nosing up through the mulch and water them heavily one evening.

oxblood lily
The next morning they are kicking into gear.

oxblood lily
The following morning they’ve pushed up four inches.

oxblood lily
The next day they are beginning to open. By noon they are fully open.

by M Sinclair Stevens

10 Responses to post “3. First Love–Southern Bulbs”

  1. From Kathy (New York):

    I wonder how colchicums would do for you, particularly the ones that have not done well for me. There is also Bulbs of North America by Jane McGary that might have something you haven’t tried yet.

    I bought the McGary book last Christmas. I find it to be more of a botanical reference than a garden reference; it has only a short chapter on bulbs of the southwest. I haven’t tried colchicums–they’re a popular winter potted plant in the garden centers here…I think I’m thinking of the same thing. — mss

  2. From Shelly:

    Last year you graciously gave me some oxbloods. I planted them in a part of the garden that was kind of experimental – and this year that patch wasn’t as well cared for as I would have liked.

    The first one is up! Many, many thanks!

    Incidentally, I am also a south of the river gardener – over by Zilker Elementary. I have enjoyed reading your blog for a year or so – and have been happy to see a little community of Austin gardeners commenting.

    Thanks for commenting–I’m sure I speak for all the Austin garden bloggers in encouraging our silent readers to join in the conversation. It’s always great to hear from you. I remember you, Shelly. You brought me some Narcissus simplex. They came up last spring but didn’t flower. I have them marked so I can keep an eye on them next spring. I’m glad the oxblood lilies are growing for you. If we don’t get the rain we’re promised next week give them an extra heavy watering and they’ll be happy for another year. — mss

  3. From Annie in Austin:

    Hello M and hi to Shelly,too –

    Doesn’t the Soup Peddler feature Oxtail soup once in awhile? You could make a business alliance, calling yourself the Oxblood Lily peddler. Share the same yoke, so to speak.

    All my bulbs were kept in pots until fall 1999, so my experience in TX isn’t long term. After the Christmas-gift Amaryllis moved from containers to a shrub border last year, they grew and a couple of them bloomed. The ‘La Buffarosea’ rainlilies, bought in 2000, have multiplied and bloomed. This is the third autumn for the ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus, and some bargain-bin Oriental lilies bloomed for the 4th time in early summer. The cannas carried from Illinois in 1999 have done really well – perhaps too well!

    One bulb you didn’t mention is Calla lily, Zantedeschia. A few of them also came with us to Austin in 1999 and they’ve bloomed well in some years, but not in 2006.

    Except for the ‘Grand Primo’, bought at a garden club sale, my bulbs could come from almost anywhere, and they sound so ordinary next to your survivors. Oxblood lilies, St Joseph Lily, and Red Spider lilies have more Southern romance to them.

    I’m impressed with your track record on oriental lilies. I’ve grown them in pots but they don’t come back the second year. I grew some asiatic lilies that came back for about ten years. I was down to one stalk this year (which bloomed) but I don’t know if it will come back. I’ve never tried calla lilies. Don’t they require a lot of moisture? — mss

  4. From Craig:

    Your listing of bulbs you have trialed is something most gardeners do when experimenting with plants. I am willing to try growing most plants if given a bit of encouragement for their success. Sometimes I miss but the winners give me hope for more out-of-zone trialing. I’ve had a Fuchsia magellanica get through two winters in my 4b/5a garden–still no flowers but I am ever hopeful.

    Your Rhodophialas are from Argentina. Have you researched their associated plants from that area? There aren’t a large number of Argentinean plants in the marketplace but it would be a worthwhile endeavor. I would also encourage you to consider Amaryllis belladonna. It has a similar flowering, growing, and dormant cycle as Rhodophiala. They are accustomed to being dry for five months of the year so a drought shouldn’t faze them but I’m not sure about the high temperatures you’ve had this summer. Sacramento regularly hits in the 90s and 100s every summer but Texas is different, as you well know. The Amaryllis is reputed to be hardy down to zone 7 and may be worth a try. As both are in the Amaryllis family, the form of the flowers is similar, with the Amaryllis being taller. The Amaryllis is lightly scented and the colors range from white to deep rose but are most commonly light pink. See if someone has had success with it locally or maybe a botanical garden is offering it. As you have discovered with your Rhodophiala plants, it is better to have clones that have grown well in your area rather than wasting money on plants grown elsewhere that are not going to succeed in your garden.

    Three characteristics that point to a success for a bulb in Austin are 1) doesn’t require cold to flower 2) doesn’t mind wet feet, 3) requires summer baking during dormant period. The “wet feet” characteristic confused me for a long time because our clay soil is usually as dry as adobe. But when it’s not, it is mucky and slow draining and lots of bulbs rot. I’ve heard this is a problem with “Amaryllis belladonna” (or “naked ladies” as we call ’em down south); I haven’t tried them and am curious if anyone else in Austin grows them. Of course, if you’re keen you can lift the bulbs every year and plant them in fresh beds. I am looking for bulbs that would naturalize but I might make a special place for fussy bulbs–if I like the flowers enough. — mss

  5. From r sorrell (Austin):

    People who lived here before us planted both purple bearded iris and paperwhite narcissus which survived for years without help. (This is an assumption, of course… but the people who owned the house last rented it out to UT students, who probably didn’t do much gardening.

    I tried some type of Calla Lily this year, which came up but didn’t bloom. I also tried an Oriental Hybrid Lily, which didn’t even come up. I don’t think I planted it deep enough, though.

    How interesting that you mention Ogden’s book and the McClure and Zimmerman catalog…They’ve been my bedtime reading for the last month. I go back and forth between the two, highlighting the bulbs I want.

    (FYI: Southern Bulb Co. has bulbs for sale at The Great Outdoors. You’re right, they’re pricey. There are a few things I might buy, but I feel like I might be able to get a lot of what they sell for free if I visit my grandmother more often.)

    A good general bulb book is Rob Proctors “Naturalizing Bulbs”. An update to Scott Ogden’s book is Thad Howard’s Bulbs for Warm Climates. Follow the link to see the Table of Contents and an excerpt. — mss

  6. From bill:

    When I moved into my Dallas garden 13 years ago I inherited Lycoris and also Amaryllis belladonna.

    The Amaryllis were orginally in a shady spot in a corner under some cherry laurel. However one bloomed and digging around I discovered more bulbs like it which I decided to move to spots where I could appeciate them better.

    Some I moved to a shady area under a pecan tree near my back door. They were in a raised bed but received occasional supplemental watering in the summer. They bloomed reliably every year.

    The second group I planted in a rather sunny spot in the front yard between some roses that also received regular watering. These produced foliage every year but never bloomed.

    Alas, when I moved I took some of the bulbs with me but due to a miscommunication my wife gave them away.

  7. From Franki. in Burnet:

    Old House Gardens specializes in heirloom bulbs. I think they are located in Michigan, but have a lot of bulbs for the South and Texas.

    I’ve seen their catalog online but I’ve never bought anything from them. Does anyone else have any experience with them? — mss

  8. From rose schneier:

    Sinclair, do you have any oxblood lilies for sale this year?

    I live on the East side near the airport. would they do well there?

    I would be interested in 6-10 bulbs/plants.


    Rose Schneier

  9. From Ted Whatley:

    Re Dahlias

    Has anyone had success with Dahlias in Austin. I’m eager to keep trying. Any suggestions about varieties. When do you plant. I’m thinking about mid-February.

    Thank you,


  10. From patty allen, humble tx.:

    You can buy a number of heirloom bulbs from Bayou City Heirloom Bulbs in Humble, Texas. These bulbs are grown in the Houston-Humble area and increase well over the years.