This really has been a long, delightful fall. Twice already we got some snow, a reminder that inevitably winter will settle it. While there isn’t much we can do to shorten the winterseason, fortunately we can brighten it up a bit. Several species of bulbs hailing from southern Africa may be just the touch of color and sometimes fragrance needed to get you past the winter doldrums.
Most popular is the amaryllis. These large bulbs produce glorious, huge, trumpet-shaped flowers on tall, sturdy stems. Due to intensive hybridization, colors range from pure white and pale pink to salmon, scarlet, deep pink and orange. Many interesting bicolors and picotees can be purchased along with doubles and miniatures.
Plant amaryllis bulbs in a pot about two inches wider than the bulb. Since these plants are top-heavy when in bloom, a sturdy clay or ceramic container is advisable. Position the bulb so the top one-quarter of it is exposed above the potting soil. Some folks like to use regular potting soil as opposed to a soilless media for planting these bulbs because of the extra weight. I find either works well as long as the container is sturdy. Mix in one tablespoon of 10-10-10 or a similar granular fertilizer per gallon of potting soil before planting.
Pack soil firmly but gently around the bulb and give it a good watering. After the initial watering, keep the soil on the dry side until you see signs of growth and then regular watering can commence. Place in a bright, warm location and the flower bud should appear in 6 to 8 weeks. After flowering, water and fertilize regularly until the leaves begin to yellow, usually late summer. Of if left outside for the summer, dig up before a hard frost and in either case, let the bulbs undergo dormancy in a dry, warm place (60 degrees F) for 2 to 3 months, then repot for late winter’s blooms.
Freesias and ixias are fragrant, winter flowering bulbs that thrive in cool (50-55 degrees F) temperatures. They both produce flowers in a wide array of colors and also slender, grass-like leaves. Six bulbs are generally planted in a 5-inch pot and the bulbs are completely covered with potting media. Freesias can be placed in a cool, bright location directly after potting while ixias need to be left in a cooler (45 degrees F), dark area for about eight weeks to establish roots before moving into brighter light to initiate growth. Older houses typically offer these environments more frequently than newer, more energy efficient homes but perhaps the garage or shed can be used if the temperature is monitored.
Fill several pots at 2 to 3 week intervals for a prolonged period of enjoyment. Both will need some support so set 3 or 4 thin stakes in the pot and loop the stakes with green string or yarn at staggered intervals. Keep the potting media moist and fertilize with a water soluble product when plants begin active growth. After the foliage begins to fade, after bloom, let the pots dry out, remove the corms and store in a dark, slightly humid spot until next fall. Or, if this sounds like too much work, purchase more bulbs next year.
Veltheimia bracteata is a South African bulb, sometimes called the Cape hyacinth, and it prefers warmer (60-70 degrees F) temperatures. From a basal rosette of soft green, strap-like leaves arises a two-foot flower spike – soft pink blossoms tinged with yellow are similar in form to the red hot poker plant. Water newly potted bulbs sparingly until new growth is evident. This plant performs best when crowded so don’t repot unless absolutely necessary. Like the other South African natives, it too needs a dry, dormant period when yellowing leaves signal the cessation of growth.
Except for amaryllis, I will say that these other bulbs are not as readily available at local garden centers as they used to be when local venders liked to appeal more to budding horticulturists. Typically the bulbs are not a problem to mail order and they can be potted up any time in the next few weeks.
For years, I nursed along my freesias (after getting severely addicted to their fragrance when they were grown each winter at Old Sturbridge Village where I was previously employed). Each year at OSV, forced freesias were delivered to the visitor’s center and various departments and very much appreciated for their winter fragrance, color and interest. More recently, I discovered that Tri-County Greenhouse on Route 44 in Storrs-Mansfield sells their own locally grown freesias and now I spend time visiting them in February and purchasing heavenly scented pastel freesia blooms instead of trying to find that perfect 55 degrees F spot in my basement.
There are a number of other South African bulbs that can be grown inside homes during the winter months. It is likely you can find some in bloom this winter at the UConn EEB Greenhouse. Do visit, especially on those chilling January and February days when a stroll through the tropics seems so desirable but a bit out of reach financially. Enjoy one of the most diverse plant collections in northeastern United States. Admission is free (see website for exceptions). Go to http://florawww.eeb.uconn.edu/ for directions and hours.