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Autumn-flowering bulbs

November 12, 2021
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Few gardeners, let alone those with a preference for alpines, grow many autumn-flowering bulbs apart from those already discussed (Crocus and Colchicum). But there are a few that I would not be without.

Prominent among them is Acis autumnalis (formerly Leucojum autumnale).

This little charmer has tiny white elfin ‘hats’ borne on slender grass-like stems. It is easy to grow in any reasonable soil in sun or part shade, but is slow to build up into a clump. That shown was 12 years old when the photograph was taken. I have never had seed set, but all my bulbs are offspring of a single clone, so maybe that is the reason. But the clumps are easy to split and divide; the best time seems to be in late summer when they are starting into growth.

Acis autumnalis autumn-flowering bulb

Acis autumnalis

Sternbergia sicula

Sternbergia sicula in the Peloponnese

Sternbergias

Sternbergia is a small genus of autumn-flowering bulbs from Greece and Turkey. All except S. candida, which is white flowered, are yellow. At first sight they look like crocuses, but are in facts members of the daffodil family. All are plants of open, arid situations in the wild, and these conditions should be replicated as closely as possible in the garden. Give them poor, stony soil and full sun. Then, if you are lucky, you will be rewarded in October, or even into November, by a splash of gold in your scree or rock garden.

The only sternbergia easily available as bulbs is S. lutea, so not surprisingly this is the species most often seen in gardens. The other yellow species are very similar, although to the botanist they exhibit interesting differences. In my experience, bulbs in the trade are often incorrectly named, but all are well worth growing.

If, like me you garden in an area with lots of summer rain and often little sunshine, try them in pots. Treat them as I have described for other containerised autumn bulbs and you should not go far wrong. And a pot or two brought into the house or glasshouse will bring a ray of sunshine with them.

Autumn-flowering bulbs Sternbergia

Sternbergia lutea

Nerines

These autumn-flowering jewels, like sternbergias, are members of the daffodil family, but they all hail from Southern Africa. There are 25 species, varying considerably in hardiness, most bearing white or pink flowers on strong, tallish scapes. Some of the less hardy ones require protection from frost; they make excellent cold conservatory plants. But some, including the two species shown here are fully hardy, except perhaps in the coldest gardens. Of these, only Nerine bowdenii, in various colours from pure white to dark reddish pink, is generally available. The other, N. undulata (N. alta), of which there are also albino forms, is obtainable from a few specialist suppliers.

 

autumn-flowering bulbs, Nerines

Nerines framing the view towards Puffin Island, in John Good's garden

Autumn-flowering bulbs nerine

Nerine alta and Fascicularia bicolor

Placement and planting

Not surprisingly, given their provenance, nerines like a hot sunny position in the garden. They are often seen in beds under the eaves of houses, where they are protected from the worst of summer rains during their dormant period. But they are good subjects for the larger rock garden with its perfect soil drainage.

You can buy nerines as dry bulbs or (more expensively) as pot-grown plants, Dormant bulbs can be planted at any time, but when you purchase make sure they are plump and not affected by fungal rots. Plant them with the top of the bulb level with or just above the soil surface. Water them thoroughly then leave them alone; nerines flower best when the bulbs are crowded. They will produce flowers in autumn before the leaves, which emerge during winter and spring. I give mine a top dressing of gritty compost with slow release nutrients as soon as the leaves are in full growth.

propagation

My nerines never set seed, but that is no loss really as they increase so quickly and reliably from bulb offsets. It is best to take them from the edge of clumps leaving the rest intact.  Replant them immediately in fresh ground and they should grow on without any noticeable check.

Autumn-flowering bulbs Nerine

Nerine bowdenii 'Alba'