Fall Bulbs
from October 1999

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In a Mediterranean climate like ours, fall is as much a time of rebirth as it is a winding down of the season. Even as maples and alders begin to color, soon to present picturesque winter skeletons, other plants are poised to burst forth with new growth and flowers. Others (think of the California fuchsias) put on a lavish floral display as their last act of the season. So it is with many bulbs of the Mediterranean climate areas, from southern Africa to Europe, southern South America to California..

Nerine is a wonderful genus of amaryllis allies hailing from South Africa. Its members fall into two cultural groups: Those which grow in winter and early spring and can dry out completely in summer; and those which are active mostly in the spring and summer months, and need ordinary garden watering. In both cases, however, flowering converges on the fall months.

N. sarniensis and its hybrids are just now poking up naked 1-2' flowering stems from the ground. Bud clusters at their tips will soon unfold into broad umbrellas of stunning blossoms, each up to 3" wide. The flowers have narrow, wavy-edged segments shaded from snow-white to crimson, with beautiful pastel pinks, hot magentas, scarlets and even orange shades in between. They actually glitter, appearing to have tiny metal flakes or crystals imbedded beneath their surface. When the long-lasting flowers have finally faded, they are replaced by clumps of attractive strap-shaped leaves, usually 8-12" long, grey-green to deep green in color and often shiny. These persist until late spring. I have had great fun growing and selecting from seedling batches, as well as importing old favorites from England. These include my own 'Old Rose', with flowers perhaps a bit vivid for that description; 'Salmon Beauty', with blossoms of soft flesh-pink; 'Corusca Major', an ancient selection with wild orange-scarlet hues; and our form of the variety rosea, with flowers of glowing rose pink.

N. bowdenii is a species of similar appearance but summer-growing and winter-dormant. It has shiny, bright green seasonal leaves about a foot long. The deep to light pink flowers, sometimes even larger than those of N. sarniensis, may appear as late as the end of November. Altogether different in vegetative appearance is N. masonorum, with small bulbs, narrow grassy leaves and many clusters of smallish (under 1") deep pink blossoms. It is nearly evergreen but primarily spring and summer-growing. This is a fine little bulb for the rock garden, while the larger nerines may be placed in the open garden, individually or in drifts. The winter foliage of N. sarniensis is burned at around 20 deg. F., but the plants recover quickly. I would recommend covering them during cold snaps in gardens away from the coast. The others described here are considerably hardier. All should have moderately well-drained soils. All are extremely long-lived, multiplying freely to form ever larger clumps, and ever more generous with their flowers.