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GARDENING : Put Bloom on Spring With Sturdy South African Bulbs


In the fall a gardener's thoughts should be on spring because it's now that we plan and plant what will bloom in spring. And nothing says spring like bulbs.

A wonderful addition to the California garden that will be the envy of all your eastern friends are the bulbs of South Africa. They are well suited to this area because South Africa's climate is identical to ours--warm-wet winters and hot-dry summers.

South Africa is home to hundreds of bulb species, a large percentage of which are endangered. When you purchase bulbs, be sure to ask where they come from. Do not buy bulbs that were collected in the wild.

Purists will know that these are not true bulbs, which are constructed in scales like an onion. These are corms, which are smaller and solid, but are commonly and conveniently called bulbs.

When you plan space in your garden for South African bulbs, envision wildflowers and comfortable informal gardens. For the most part these are not bulbs to plant in rows or mass beds. They are little bulbs to stick in the nooks and crannies of your garden. Plant them in groups of five or more, in places were they aren't expected and where they can be viewed up close.

They are easy to plant. It is not necessary to dig big holes or do any major soil preparation. If your soil is a heavy clay, and much of Orange County is, you will want to do more preparation and plan more carefully. Select a spot with the best drainage, a raised bed, mounded area, or a slope.

This is necessary if the bulbs are to bloom year after year. They are dormant in the summer and need little or no water then. This makes them excellent candidates for water-conscious gardens. If they receive too much water during the summer, they may rot and not return. If properly nurtured, they will reproduce freely and need separating in two or three years.

They need full sun in the fall and continuing until the foliage dies back after blooming. Although this dying-back period may not be very attractive, it is necessary; the bulbs are storing energy for next year's growth.

They also grow very well in containers. When they have finished blooming, mark what's in the container and move it to an out-of-the-way spot until the fall.

The South African bulbs described here have similar requirements. Freesia and sparaxis are available at most nurseries. The others can be found at Roger's Gardens, The Nurseryland Garden Centers and Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena. All are available at the UC Irvine Arboretum, which has more than 400 South African Bulbs in its collection.

Freesia: Freesia has one outstanding feature that the other bulbs don't--its flowers have a most exquisite scent. They are delicate and trumpet-shaped blooms in shades of yellow, blue, red, pink and white with some bicolors. The double freesias are not as fragrant.

When their flower spikes are weak they will droop. Dan Davids of Davids & Royston Bulbs says, "The secret to growing freesias that don't flop over is to grow them in full sun." The Tecolote hybrids were developed to have shorter, stronger stems that hold up.

Freesias make outstanding cut flowers, grow well in containers and work well in borders.

Sparaxis: Bright shades of orange, red, scarlet, white, yellow, copper, pink, maroon or cerise, usually splashed with a bright yellow center and often surrounded with black, gives sparaxis its common name of harlequin flower. Its flowers are as colorful and mixed up as a clown suit.

Clusters of spear-shaped leaves produce funnel-shaped flowers on 9- to 12-inch spikes. They bloom over a long period in late spring. The flowers are long-lasting and make excellent cut flowers. They will compete with tree roots for space and nutrients as long as they receive sun. They need plenty of water while actively growing.

The Tecolote hybrids are the best for California gardens.

Ixia: There are 25 to 30 species of ixias but only a few are in cultivation. Graceful, wiry 18- to 20-inch stems are topped with spikelike clusters of 1- to 2-inch cup-shaped flowers in shades of yellow, orange, red and pink, all with darker centers. In bud they look like colorful beads on a wand. Their bloom period is late spring, May and June.

A favorite of flower arrangers, the gaily colored blooms last up to two weeks. Pick the flowers after the first one starts to open, and immediately submerge in water. On dull days and at night the flowers will close but will open again in sunshine or when brought into a warm house.

Watsonia: Watsonia is closely related to gladiolus. They have the same long, narrow, sword-shaped leaves and tubular flowers. Watsonias are generally taller and the flowers are smaller, more graceful, and less formal than gladioli. They bloom in late spring and early summer in colors of white, pink, rose, lavender, orchid and mauve.

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