There are few plants as rewarding and foolproof to grow as those that sprout from bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes. Among their number we can count favourites such as gladioli, begonias, lilies, dahlias, amaryllis and nerines, alongside lesser known, exotic beauties such as habranthus (Brazilian copperlily), gloriosa (glory lily), eucomis (pineapple lily), eremurus (foxtail lily) and crinum (swamp lily)*. Many bulbs sold for garden cultivation are bold, colourful, long-flowering and best of all inexpensive, giving gardeners plenty of bang for their buck. In short, they are one of the plant world’s best investments. If you catch the bulb bug like me then there’s an inexhaustible range of hybrids and species to experiment with, and new ones coming along all the time.
Bulbous, cormous, tuberous and rhizomatous plants arrive in your garden with all the energy they need for the first growing season, stored up in the solid parts that live under the soil. To the botanist and horticulturist the terms, ‘bulb’, ‘corm’, ‘tuber’ and ‘rhizome’ each reference something distinctly different. They are all, in effect, underground energy storage organs, designed to sustain a plant through periods of hardship (for example cold, drought or fire) or to help them multiply. Gardeners will often reference the whole lot as ‘bulbs’, which is technically incorrect but very much easier to refer to in conversation. I have taken that liberty in the title of this post, whilst featuring corms, tubers and rhizomes too. The correct, if unexciting umbrella term for all these plants is ‘geophytes’, derived from the Greek for ‘earth’ and ‘plant’. Since we are among friends here, ‘bulbs’ will do just fine.
Unless you’re completely hapless in the garden, or you buy poor quality, undersized stock, any bulbs you purchase right now should flower reliably this summer or autumn. For most, March or April is a good time to plant, although some such as dahlias and begonias will require frost protection until late May or early June. Plant bulbs in the right place, in the right conditions, treat them well and they’ll come back year-after-year, often in larger and more impressive clumps. Ignore their needs and they can peter out very quickly, but are easily replaced with something more suitable. Great sources of bulbs abound in the UK, but my ‘go to’ nurseries are Avon Bulbs, Living Colour Bulbs, Broadleigh Bulbs, Sarah Raven and J. Parker’s Wholesale, all of whom know their stuff and supply good quality stock at reasonable prices. My advice is not to hang about and to buy now, planting as soon as you can get out to the garden or potting shed. Bulbs do not like sitting in sweaty bags of damp compost any more than you would.
We are so blessed with our climate in the UK, enabling bulbs from all over the temperate and subtropical world to be grown in gardens and greenhouses with a little care. This makes the task of recommending just ten a hard one. I have chosen those listed below based on personal experience, ease of cultivation and to offer a selection with a flowering period extending from May until November. Seven out of the ten have been awarded an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which is an endorsement of their suitability for UK gardens. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my choices and your own recommendations for other bulbs to try this summer. TFG.
1) Lilium regale AGM (Regal Lily)
Here’s a bulb with class, elegance and history. No wonder it was named Lilium regale, the regal lily. It was introduced to England from China in 1903 by Ernest Henry Wilson and quickly became a favourite of Gertrude Jekyll, who used it prolifically in her garden designs at a time when it would have been quite a novelty. Jekyll would frequently plant large clumps of Lilium regale in strategic spots, creating height and drama at pivotal points in her schemes. In addition to stature, the lilies also contributed intoxicating scent ad blushing white flowers that stood out well against dark foliage. Unfortunately, like all lilies, Lilium regale succumbs to the attentions of scarlet lily beetle, but it’s worth being vigilant and picking the blighters off before they excrete their vile black gunk over the leaf axils. The flowers’ pollen is also toxic to cats. Despite those shortcomings there is no flower so exquisite as Lilium regale at dusk on a warm June evening, glowing in the gloaming and sharing its intoxicating perfume. Plant plenty, and then plant some more.
Lilium regale is available from Sarah Raven
2) Scilla peruviana (Portugese squill)
I am taking a liberty with this recommendation as I am growing this sapphire-blossomed gem for the first time in 2018. The bulbs are yet to flower, hence the borrowed image. I was inspired by a garden on nearby South Cliff Parade which has a 20 metre long river of these growing at the foot of an east-facing wall. I’ve also admired Scilla peruviana growing beneath the wisteria at Sissinghurst in the Moat Walk, where they are interspersed with the dancing flowers of a canary-yellow ixia. Unlike delicate early spring scillas, Scilla peruviana is a brazen belter of a bulb, producing chunky stems topped with a flattened cone of dazzling blue flowers. There’s a close resemblance to an allium, but no onion scent. After flowering in May and June the leaves die back before re-emerging in late summer and enduring through the winter. The misnomer ‘peruviana’ arose because the bulbs were originally transported to Bristol on a ship called the ‘Peru’ which had sailed from the Mediterranean and not South America. Like many Mediterranean bulbs Scilla peruviana prefers well-drained soil, plenty of sunlight and warm, dry summer rest. The variety ‘Caribbean Jewels Sapphire Blue’ claims to be more tolerant of cooler climes.
Scilla peruviana is available from Avon Bulbs, but requires planting in autumn rather than spring.
3) Crocosmia ‘lucifer’ AGM (Montbretia)
Some plants become so popular, so ubiquitous, that they lose their charm and desirability. However, there’s generally a reason why plants become popular, and that’s because they’ve proved reliable and useful in British gardens. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is one such plants, a giant among montbretias (as they were known in my youth) producing arching stems of flame red flowers with all the drama and elegance of a rising phoenix. Like many other winning perennials, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ was bred by nurseryman Alan Bloom, a cross between two hardy species C. masoniorum and C. paniculata. The resulting plant took the gardening world by storm in the 1970s and is now seen almost everywhere, from private gardens to public parks. As exotic gardening and ‘hot’ colour schemes have come into vogue, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ has further cemented its ‘must have’ status. It may not be a rarity, but it’s a good ‘doer’ if you have the right conditions. Plants require sun, year-round moisture and mulching in winter if you live in a cold area.
Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is available from the RHS online plant shop.
4) amaryllis belladonna AGM (Naked Ladies)
If you don’t have a warm, sunny garden, then look away now; Amaryllis belladonna is not for you. But if you have a dry, sun-kissed patch at the foot of a sheltered wall then you’d be foolish not to make home for a group of naked ladies. This suggestive common name comes about because the flower stems emerge from the earth free from foliage, producing decadent clusters of candyfloss pink trumpets at the summer’s end. Bulbs don’t come cheap and you should invest in the largest ones you can afford to guarantee flowering. I shall be adding more to a clump I started last year and hoping for a good display in September, later than the lilies but ahead of the nerines.
Amaryllis belladonna is available from Broadleigh Gardens
5) Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ AGM
This tuberous perennial with its dark, bronzed foliage and scarlet flowers needs little introduction. It was thanks to Christopher Lloyd and his extensive use of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ that dahlias found their way back into gardener’ affections again. There are now lots of other ‘Bishops’ and a seed strain called ‘Bishop’s Children’, but none surpass ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ in popularity. It was bred and introduced by Fred Treseder, a Cardiff nurseryman and named to honour Joshua Pritchard Hughes, Bishop of Llandaff, in 1924. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ had earned an RHS Award of Garden Merit by 1928 and continues to be one of the most popular dahlias in cultivation today. Despite its bold looks, this vigorous, healthy, bee-friendly plant combines well with other perennials in a mixed border. Along with Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is an essential ingredient in any ‘hot’ or exotic planting scheme. Needs sun to bring out the depth and lustre in its fine foliage.
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is available from J. Parker’s
6) Begonia ‘Million Kisses’ series
I’ve grown a lot of flowering begonias in my time, and I have found none to rival this series bred by begonia enthusiast Fred Yates. Billed as ‘the most vigorous trailing begonia on the market’ I can find little fault with that confident statement. The plants are naturally trailing, branching without requiring pinching out and flowering when very young until the first frosts. The best thing for me is that these begonias perform best in partial to full shade, making them extremely useful for brightening up dark spots in the garden. During the summer the plants are best kept on the drier side to avoid mould and rot setting in. Spent flowers drop off freely, keeping the plants’ appearance neat and tidy. Begonia ‘Million Kisses Elegance’, pictured above, is one of the most commented upon plants in my garden when I open August. For flame-red flowers track down ‘Million Kisses Devotion’ and for yellow, ‘Million Kisses Honeymoon’. ‘Million Kisses Blissful’ is white, very heavily flushed with deep pink.
Begonias from the ‘Million Kisses’ series are available from Unwins
7) Nerine bowdenii AGM (Bowden Lily)
Nerines are bulbs lumbered with a reputation for being tricky to grow. Perhaps it’s because they look rather too good to be true. They are not, in particular the commonest species, difficult at all, provided they are planted correctly in the right conditions: they need their ‘noses’ (i.e. the tops of the bulbs) protruding from the ground and a warm, dry, sunny spot. In the wild nerines grow in poor soil, so don’t over-feed. The result will be lots of leaves at the expense of flowers. Nerines are perfect for parched corners where they should be left alone until they become so overcrowded that the bulbs have hoiked themselves entirely out of the ground.
Nerine bowdenii is technically autumn-flowering, producing graceful stems topped with iridescent pink flowers as early as September and as late as Christmas. There is something magical about the appearance of these fresh-faced beauties at a time of year when everything else is past its best. One can never have enough nerines, so as with Lilium regale, plant generously, and then plant some more.
Nerine bowdenii is available from J. Parker’s, but is best planted in the autumn.
8) Hesperantha (formerly Schizostylis) coccinea ‘Major’ AGM (Kaffir lily)
I will forever associate these lovely flowering plants with my grandparents garden in Cornwall, where they still grow happily and prolifically. Hesperantha’s spreading rhizomes give rise to grassy foliage, from which spires of cherry-red flowers begin to emerge in late summer. I have known them to keep going well into the New Year. Although I don’t have a good photograph of H. ‘Major’ I can contribute an image of a pink variant, taken on Boxing Day in 2013. The rhizomes need warmth and moisture all summer, which is probably why they do so well in the West Country.
Hesperantha coccinea ‘Major’ is available from The Beth Chatto Gardens
9) Cautleya spicata (Himalayan ginger)
Cautleya spicata is a superb, trouble-free, hardy ginger for dappled shade. Red stems carrying elongated, exotic-looking leaves appear in late spring, later terminating with golden-yellow flowers beloved by bees. Feed frequently and you may get repeat flushes in a good year. Associates brilliantly with ferns and is very happy in a large pot provided it’s kept well watered. Not too tall and self-supporting. Easily divided to produce more plants, which is handy as your friends will be eager take them off your hands. The stems snap off satisfyingly as winter approaches and I overwinter mine in the garage where they need no attention until new shoots start to form in April.
Cautleya spicata ‘Robusta’ is available from Avon Bulbs
10 ) Eucomis bicolor AGM (pineapple lily)
Another garden essential if you, like me, have a penchant for plants with a tropical appearance. The pineapple lily almost has it all, but falls down in the fragrance department (less pineapple, more pong) so don’t confine it to the greenhouse or conservatory. Outside you won’t catch a whiff unless you stick your nose right up against it. Eucomis bicolor grows from a bulb and it’s well worth tracking down large ones. The apple-green leaves are totally tropical but the main event is the maroon-spotted flower stem topped with the flamboyant crest which lends the plant its name. Not a lily, in fact more closely related to diminutive spring scillas. To see it through winter plant deeply, or in a pot which can be moved indoors and kept very dry in winter.
Eucomis bicolor is available from J. Parker’s
* If proof were needed that common names are misleading then here is a brilliant example – none of these flowers is actually a lily and most don’t look like one either!