Make the versatile world of bulbs part of your garden

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

By Felder Rushing

Gardening Columnist

Time for a little romp through hardy bulbs – live-forever plants which add zesty seasonal surprises to the best gardens.

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And there are a lot, even for summer. Not to slight my heirloom late winter and early spring beauties, including very fragrant jonquils and paperwhites and all the other Narcissus, but they are followed quickly with grape hyacinth, green-dotted white bells of snowflake, waves of blue starflower (Ipheion) in the lawn, star of Bethlehem, Spanish bluebells (often called woods hyacinth), pink oxalis, and Dutch iris.

My antique Twin Sisters daffodils, our latest blooming Narcissus which flower into early May, have petered out, as has the native swamp spider lily (Hymenocallis) and variegated greenery of painted arum, which I call winter hostas. But my elephant garlic, which is close to harvest, is topped with baseball size globes of white tinged with purple.

Up until last week I still had a big show of hardy Johnson’s Red amaryllis, punctuated with tall spires of the gaudy magenta Byzantine gladiolus, both of which are now just nice clumps of leaves. But I am already eyeballing a wild stand of antique orange and yellow parrot gladiolus that has escaped from a long-gone country garden, I’ll wait til the flowers fade before rescuing a handful of corms (which, like tuberous four o’clocks, cannas, and caladiums this botanically-irreverent horticulturists still lumps in with true bulbs).

Already dying down is the winter foliage of summer-blooming pink “naked ladies” (Lycoris squamigera, for folks who like to look stuff up by the real names) and later-blooming red spider lilies (L. radiata), both of which will give nice surprises in the hottest part of the summer.

But even without pointing out how the spikey shape of non-blooming iris add a strong accent as a flowerbed companion or summer skirt to shrubs, I have lots of summer leaves of chives, garlic chives, five different elephant ears, and emerging new leaves of shade-loving aspidistra and variegated Liriope, and the afore-mentioned canna. Again, I know those are not all true bulbs, but…

The most fortunate gardeners, or those with an eye for extra pizazz, have two extraordinary bulbs blooming right now, both revered as strong, long-lasting cut flowers: tall lavender wands of native blazing star (Liatris), loaded with butterflies and other pollinators, and as many species of true lilies as they can lay their trowels on. The latter include white Easter lily, which flowers in May when planted as forever perennials in a sunny flower bed, plus many eye-popping cultivars of other Asian lilies, followed tall white Madonna lilies, then even taller spires of white Philippine lilies which can actually reseed and spread. I can go on and on about the Asian lilies, but you get the point – either you grow them, or you ought to.

All this with only a nod to different species of white or yellow “rain lilies” which seem to pop up all over after heavy summer storms, and climbing gloriosa lily which is one of the most exotic flowers to have in a garden.

How can I end this, without mentioning my all-time favorite summer blooming Southern bulb, the crinum lily? Big bold clumps of strappy leaves topped with sturdy stems of large trumpet flowers in white, pink, red, and milk-and-wine stripes of them all. As far as anyone I know knows, none have ever died; and if you want to dig one up, bring your lunch because it’ll be big and deep. Or go to the best online source I know of:

Bulbs: once you see them you want them, then you got them for good.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to