Summer Bulbs

I need more summer bulbs.  My steppe garden is suffering it’s mid-summer fade, as happens with natural steppe ecosystems and gardens that are inspired by them.  Most mediterranean gardens suffer the same fate.

In spring the choice of bulbs is really too wide.  I have to restrain myself.  And in about a month this unwatered garden will be awash with colchicums.  But meanwhile there’s nothing.

Well, not quite nothing.  The first buds on the Allium carinatum ‘pulchellem’ are starting to emerge, with their crazy-long scapes sticking up way higher than they need to.  You’ve really got to wonder why any bulb would waste the energy on something so extravagant.  And while they retain this scape right up to flowering time, after a hot, dry, early summer like we’ve had, there’s never any foliage left by then.  It may be that the flower stem and scape are their only source of ongoing photosynthesis.   Their preference would be for a moister spot, but in its absence they just get on with the job.  They also self-sow like crazy, which is just as well, as the flowers are so fine and spidery that they only really make a show by repetition.  And with such slender, non-competitive body parts, I don’t imagine that there rapidly increasing numbers are going to threaten anything else.

I don’t think that the same thing could be said of garlic chives.  They flower really late in summer, in the cleanest, freshest, crispest white, when everything else looks overcome with fatigue.  But they’re are aggressive, competitive and they root in deep and strong. I’d really have to dead-head them to stop excessive seeding, and I can’t trust myself to do it.  The early flowers are producing seed before the late ones reach their best, so you’re lured into leaving them just a week or two longer, and then the damage is done.  That being said, I’m still tempted.

I’ve included one very simple, self-sown, agapanthus which is flowering, a little half-heartedly, almost at half-mast, you might say, after last summer’s appalling dry, and the dry start to this one.  

I included the rain lily (Zephyranthes candida) in the initial planting, and they did OK in February, as long as we had some rain.  They seemed to flower within hours or a shower.  But I lost heart when I saw them really performing in summer in Brisbane (and it was only then that I discovered that my thinking of them as mediterranean bulbs was faulty, and that they actually come from tropical zones).  Last summer they didn’t even make an appearance, as a consequence of the long, deep dry.  I know they’re still there as I accidentally dug some up. Maybe the recent rains, and those yet to come, will wake the up.

So far I’ve failed in my attempts at getting the white belladonna going.  They’d be the perfect February addition, providing the necessary late arrival to this party-in-temporary-malaise, but being in leaf in winter, they keep getting set back by frost.

Galtonias are too tall for the planting – I wish someone would discover or breed a 40cm form – as are LIliums.  Both are brilliant bulbs for summer, and the breeding of the latter has made for ever-increasing heat and drought tolerance.  Great for standing proud amongst tall perennials, but not so good for the largely knee-high planting in the steppe.

In a few weeks the true autumn crocus, a group that includes the saffron crocus, will begin.  These would be perfect for the steppe if I could get enough of them at an affordable price.  When you’re using bulbs for a large planting, and for big, repetitive effects, you need hundreds, so you’re stuck with the cheap, easily available ones, and there’s not a single autumn crocus that fits this category.  Raising them from seed is my only hope.

Some time in autumn, depending to some extent upon the rains, my favourite bricky-coloured oxalis (Oxalis massoniana) will emerge.  I’ve had it for years but it’s hardly increased.  I want acres of it.  

Nothoscordum hirtellum will also emerge, with it’s rich, golden, crocus-like flowers, that are fascinatingly ‘shouldered’ – a bit like an individual kalmia bloom.  Like the oxalis and the crocus, it’s a collector’s plant, and sold in collector’s quantities (one per pot) at collector’s prices.  It’s increasing at a reasonable rate, but I’ll have to live to 120 if I’m going to see them spangled, at random, as if self-sown, amongst the evergreen matrix of the steppe.

But meanwhile, it’s slim pickings on the bulb front.  Are there any summer candidates that I’m overlooking?


  1. Lilium longiflorum is one that appears in SA towards the end of Jan, so even though not much is happening until the end of summer it’s got a presence from quite early on. It;s steppe height. If you can stand common as muck … it’s a tough one!

    1. Must try it. You sure it wouldn’t be too tall? How tall is it in your garden? And do you water it?

  2. I’ve had good success this year with Drimia maritima. I scored three fat bulbs at MIFGS last year and planted them into my nature strip amongst Poa lab. with the intention of them flowering as the poas were at their straw-coloured tiredness in late summer. Thought it’d take a couple of years to see a flower but all three are flowering right now, or at least working up to it. They’re delightful, even the autumn/winter foliage is neat and tidy, nothing like, say, belladonna, which can just be a seething Medusa-like mass at that time of year.

    Downside, the bulbs were $25.00 each. But I wouldn’t mind spending that again, even a couple of hundred dollars, seeing as they’re so reliable. Pretty certain mine wasn’t a fluke either, another gardener tells me his did the same in their first year.

    Might be too tall for the steppe though…. Mine are still revealing themselves and already 60cm.

    The dwarf eucomis are alright but tend be swamped easily by other plants.

    Don’t mind a nerine or lycoris either, can often score them on sale heavily discounted.

  3. Could I suggest you think about South African bulbs, huge variety, many low growing, in similar conditions to yours. Here is a list of some available

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