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LATE BLOOMERS : New 'Naked Ladies' Have Petals of White, Yellow or Red

August 19, 1990|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

A nurseryman trying to describe to a customer what the fat, papery bulbs of Amaryllis belladonna would look like when they bloomed was having no luck. Until he said: "It's the bulb that grows in vacant lots, the one with the big pink flowers." That did it.

Amaryllis belladonna are hard to miss because they bloom when and where very little else does (in the middle of summer, in completely dry soil). "They're amazing," says Polly Anderson, whose back yard in La Canada Flintridge is full of the bulbs. "They need absolutely no water, and they grow in sun or shade."

Their common name, naked ladies, refers to the fact that flower without leaves. The leaves comes later, usually in October--in time to take advantage of winter's rains--and last until late spring. Typically, they are shiny, dark green, and strap-shaped, growing in clumps two to three feet across but only about 18 inches tall. The bulbs then go dormant until the first flowers push out of the bare ground in August.

Anderson's naked ladies, however, bloom in September--she has been hybridizing them over the past 40 years. In her yard, they grow under a large Aleppo pine and around citrus and eucalyptus that are about 100 years old.

In the Anderson garden, however, they are not just pink. She has developed plants with flowers of pink with white throats, pure china white, white with creamy yellow or apricot throats and a dark pink that most people simply call red. Her flowers are bigger than the standard type, growing atop taller stems. Flowers make a circle around the stem; the common pink makes but a quarter circle, with most of the flowers facing the sun.

Some of the bulbs grow in full sun, others in complete (but bright) shade. Some grow from under a ground covering of cape weed ( Arctotheca calendula , which does not need summer water, either) and some from a mulch of pine needles, but most send the sturdy reddish-brown stems from bare dirt. The bed under the Aleppo pine has the largest number of bulbs and flowers. Anderson suspects that this is because she waters that bed in the winter for the narcissus growing there. Where other beds get no water at all, the bulbs grow more slowly but just as surely.

Anderson does not fertilize at all; according to growers she has talked to fertilizer can contribute to the early demise of bulbs, causing them to rot. So can summer watering, though the bulbs can take a certain amount. In some beds she does not even bother to weed; the weeds seem to be unable to overwhelm the amaryllis. She notes that even the cape weed, a very tough plant from South Africa that looks much like a gazania, has trouble growing into the bed of amaryllis because the ground is so dry.

Anderson began her hybridizing with a dark rosy-pink amaryllis that grows nearly wild in Santa Cruz, in Northern California, and a nice white named 'Hathor' that she found in Santa Barbara. It has been a long, slow process because it takes five to six years from seed to flowering bulb. The seeds are easy to grow, she says, and they are simply sown in the ground, in neat little rows as if they were corn. The seeds sprout right along with the foliage on the parent plants, in early fall, and even these seedlings should be allowed to go dry in summer.

If she doesn't plan to save seed, she snaps off the seed heads after the last flowers fade, to help conserve the bulbs' energy. The flower head breaks off cleanly with a crisp pop . Some of her amaryllis are growing in pots, but, she says, they don't flower well or at all in some cases, much preferring the dry open ground. Some also grow at the bases of the taller crinum lilies that flower at the same time with very similar flowers but with foliage, even though the leaves of the crinums are often tipped with brown and beginning to dry.

At the Palos Verdes Begonia Farm (which, despite the name, is a large, general nursery), John Bauman makes sure he gets a few bins of bulbs each fall, and, in general, the bulbs of the common pink are not difficult to find at nurseries. Anderson's hybrids are carried only by Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, cost a great deal more and are in very limited supply, because she digs up each one herself, with a bloom attached so that you know what you are buying. They can stay out of the ground for several weeks this way, but then should be planted so they can make new roots and leaves in the fall. They may not bloom the next year, but the following. Plant bulbs just under the ground with the very tops of the necks sticking out. In general, it is best not to dig or divide clumps of amaryllis because it does take them at least a year to become reestablished and begin flowering again.

The flowers of the common pink and the hybrids are excellent cut, fragrant and long-lived, lasting a week or two in a vase.

Several large bulb growers have shown interest in the Anderson hybrids, so some day they may be more generally available, but in the meantime there is nothing wrong at all with the readily available plain pink of vacant lots. Their return to cultivated gardens is long overdue, and they will smile at the next drought.

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