February 19, 2019

Don’t Forget the Beauty of Summer-flowering Bulbs


Acidanthera - Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Bff

• By Janine Pineo •

Spring, spring, spring.

The promise of nature’s refrain of sights, sounds and smells has had me gleefully tramping through the yard, sloshing through snow, slipping on ice and meandering through mud.

Webster’s says it’s “that season of the year following winter, in which plants begin to grow.”

It’s here and I’m ready.

I’ve nearly convinced myself that the red-budded maple in the back yard is awaiting one good day of sunshine for it to leaf out. I’ve searched for signs of crocus, muttering OK, so I can’t see them, but I know they’re there under the snow.

So are dozens of other bulbs I diligently planted last fall. For once, the usual cold snap failed to hit on my bulb-planting day, and I was blessed with one of those balmy October days that kept bugs and people buzzing about.

Five months later, I’m trying to remember what went in where. Alliums, muscari, daffodils and tulips I planted in abundance. A few hyacinths are here and there, and some Dutch iris are inhabiting a backyard bed since they didn’t seem to like the front yard.

Some varieties I haven’t tried before: fritillaria, galanthus (snowdrop), chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), winter aconite, puschkinia and scilla (Siberian squill). I can hardly wait to see how they do and what they look like, not to mention where they grow.

I plant multitudes of spring-flowering bulbs every fall, but I sometimes forget the dramatic rewards that come with summer bulbs. It stems from my rather mad devotion to trying lots of new types of plants from seed that has me momentarily overlook many summer bulbs. But this year I’m planning ahead.

I’ve had good results with summer-flowering bulbs, and most have been nearly carefree. Anemone de caen, freesia, gladiolus and Mexican shellflowers I’ve tried and liked. But my favorites are acidanthera and lilies.

Lilies, especially the Madonna lily, have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years, first by plant-loving Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Chinese and Japanese.

I haven’t been at it quite that long, and my first try at growing lilies came with a cheap collection of mixed varieties. But I liked what grew. The vigorous plants flowered at a time when the annuals were being sapped by the heat of summer. The lilies’ long-lived blossoms induced me to branch out and try other varieties.

After several tests and trials, my favorites are the Oriental hybrids. One of my reference books says that this type doesn’t winter over well, but that they are worth the money even if for one year of bloom.

I agree on their worth. My first Oriental lily, with its showy pink and white flowers and purely elegant fragrance, enchanted me from the start. However, the bulb has been in the ground for the past five years or so, belying the reference book’s advice. I would add, though, that the plant and its blooms have been smaller with each passing year. Later this spring, I plan to dig up the works and divide the new bulbs from the old, an experiment I hope will work and breathe some life into a plant too lovely to let fade.

My latest Oriental hybrid purchase came last year with Casablanca. Being an old-movie buff, I admit I am attracted to plants with movie links (hence the proliferation of the Princess Grace rose, the Cary Grant rose, and so forth in my gardens).

Nothing could have prepared me for this lily, a blockbuster worthy of its name. It grew about 3 feet tall and when it blossomed, the flowers were pure white and nearly 10 inches wide. Its seductive fragrance gently wafted through the garden and across the lawn, causing me to stop more than once while working just to catch the elusive scent.

If more fragrance is what you’re after, then acidanthera should be on your list. Also known as the peacock orchid, acidanthera is an African plant and a member of the iris family. Its habit is much like that of an iris, 2 to 3 feet tall with stiff, upright leaves. When it blossoms, six-petaled white stars with mahogany centers gently nod off sturdy stems and emit a fragrance that can be overpowering.

I say that with some experience. I’ve planted acidanthera for several years, using them sparingly as cut flowers because two or three stems of it can perfume a room splendidly, although they might be a bit much on a hot and humid summer day.

Acidanthera blossoms for a long time, with new flowers opening about when the old ones fade. Last year, I watched one plant blossom eight times before it finally called it quits.

One catalog recommends starting the bulbs inside a month early to get a longer growing season. I have never done that, simply because I have found that the plants are well past their bloom period by the time the first frost hits. And I happen to like when they blossom, which is most of August.

The only drawback is that acidanthera isn’t winter hardy in Maine, which means buying new bulbs every year or digging and storing the old ones.

To me, that is only a tiny flaw. I just take a deep breath and picture a vase full of sweet peas, a couple of roses and a trio of acidanthera.

Yes, it’s worth it.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in March 1995.

2012 update: Sadly, the red lily beetle has managed to kill off all of my Oriental lilies. I still plant acidanthera, though, along with other gladiolus for magnificent blooms.