Seasonal Color With California Bulbs

Triteleia laxa

Ithuriel's Spear (Triteleia laxa) in a San Jose garden

Some of the most reliable plants in my garden are California native bulbs. They bring seasonal color and variety to the garden, and give it a sense of place (“This is California!”) and a sense of time: they are the markers of spring glory.

Native bulbs are especially appealing to lazy gardeners like me. They need minimal effort at planting time (no need to dig big holes) and no effort thereafter, ever! They come up with the winter rains, and flower in spring. They disappear during summer and return in winter, year after year. To me they are the ultimate in low maintenance gardening!

To succeed with California bulbs, follow these simple rules:

  1. Locate them in full sun or part sun. Most bulbs need this type of exposure.
  2. Do not amend the soil. Do not locate them in extensively cultivated beds or vegetable patches. Mine grow in the characteristic clay soil of the Santa Clara Valley floor.
  3. Plant in late fall, right after the first rain. Plant each bulb 3-6” deep, root end pointing down. Shallow plantings often don’t survive.
  4. Do not water the beds through summer and fall. This is really important. Native bulbs need a period of rest, and will rot with summer water. The ideal spot is far away from the garden hose, sprinklers, and emitters.
  5. Guard against snails and slugs. Except for alliums, most California bulbs are extremely attractive to these garden pests. Use Sluggo or hand pick at night.

If you’ve never grown California bulbs, try any of the following: they have done very well in my San Jose garden.

Allium unifolium

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium)

Meadow Onion (Allium unifolium) is an early bloomer, with blossoms ranging from pink to near-white. At 18” tall, it is a significant presence, and is best planted 2’ or more away from the edge of beds. With time, it will colonize and form mounds. Blooms in April.

Triteleia laxa

Ithuriel's Spear (Triteleia laxa)

Ithuriel’s Spear (Triteleia laxa) is a common sight in the foothills in late spring, its blue funnel-shaped flowers swaying among the golden grasses. It is also one of the least fussy. Some in my garden are 5 years old, returning reliably every spring. A late bloomer, it flowers in May, when its grass-like leaves have dried up. The flowers last several weeks. ‘Queen Fabiola’ is a common cultivar. This bulb has been in cultivation in Europe since 1832, and is still widely grown!

Triteleia ixioides

Prettyface (Triteleia ixioides)

Prettyface (Triteleia ixioides) adds cheer to the spring garden with its cream-colored flowers held on long-stalked umbels. At 8”, it can be placed near paths and in front of shrubs. Combine it with a low-growing, blue-flowering ceanothus such as Yankee Point for contrast, or pair it with California poppies for warm color. This long bloomer lasts from mid-April through mid-May.

    Maintenance tip: In early summer, remove the dried stalks for neatness. Be sure to collect the seeds for propagation or for trading with fellow gardeners.

    Design tip: Bulbs are invisible 6 months of the year, so place them around existing shrubs, perennials, and bunchgrasses which will command interest when the bulbs go dormant.

There are several suppliers of native bulbs such as www.californianativebulbs.com, and www.telosrarebulbs.com. You can find inexpensive Holland-grown bulbs through www.vanengelen.com. These bulbs are only available during late summer and early fall. Popular varieties often sell out, so place your order early, or you may have wait for the next season.

12 thoughts on “Seasonal Color With California Bulbs

  1. Hooray for this article. It is very thorough, thank you. I was thinking about how special the bulbs are, and I’m anxiously waiting for my ‘Queen Fabiola’ and ‘Corrina’ Triteleia laxa’s to bloom. They are great for late spring/early summer color.

    One of the best bulbs in my So Cal garden is Allium haematochiton. It’s not the most beautiful of the onions, but it’s so reliable and carefree, and it puts on a great show for a long bloom season.

    Have you (or anyone reading this) successfully grown any Calochortus? Every one I’ve tried at home has not made it.

  2. Thanks, Laura. I have tried a number of Calochortuses, and they need more work than I have been able to give them. C. luteus flowered one season but did not return; I suspect it does not like my clay soil. C. venustus returns reliably in a sunny patch that was once nicely mulched and now is just well-draining humusy soil. I have also tried C. superbus and C. umbellatus which came up one or two seasons, but disappeared when faced with competition from other plants.

  3. very good article arvind! i’m really glad that you focus on plants which will give most everyone a successful / positive experience – good thinking.

    i’ve had terrible luck w/ calochortus – in the ground and in containers over time as well. i’ve gotten a few to come back once or twice, but not much more than that.

    w/ one exception: calochortus alba var. rubra. i bought a few from telos several years ago and one of them just keeps on coming up in the pot it’s in and getting bigger and better each year. i’ve probably tried 3 dozen calochortus over the last 7-8 years w/ a single success. [thumbs down]

  4. Calochortus really are finicky, define success. I had close to twenty species flower this year in 1 gallon pots, but I have also been buying 20-30 bulbs per year for the past four years. This year I am starting to migrate them into my garden area. Unless you have an area that receives no water from April until October, you are likely to be dissatisfied.

    They are very sensitive to soil drainage and watering regimen. I use a soil mix similar to the one I grow my cactus in, roughly equal parts: pumice, perlite, vermiculite, sand, and supersoil. In nature, they grow mainly on slopes, so I would suggest creating a berm to get better drainage. They are also yummy to all kinds of pests, large and small.

    I used to be concerned about them drying too much over the summer in pots, but have also experienced unacceptable losses with many species. This year it’s no water until it rains again and no water once it stops raining.

    For best results, try one of these “easy” species.
    C. albus, C. luteus, or C. superbus or try species that grow naturally in your area. Good luck. They are worth the effort.

  5. I remember that at the UC Botanic garden Roger Raiche planted the bulbs on a raised bed in clay pots with wire over. There must have been a reason.

  6. Does picking the flowers of native bulbs, such as Blue Dicks, Trillium, Fawn Lilies, kill the plants. I do not condone this activity but know folks that do it. Would like to have “facts” to give them to discourage the picking.

  7. Various California bulbs are excellent nectar plants for insects, notably butterflies. Thus far, sadly, our native bulbs remain, in my opinion, under-used by many native plant gardeners and wildlife gardeners.

    Colony Onion (Allium unifolium), one of the easiest, is a great favorite of the Propertius Duskywing, a butterfly whose caterpillars eat coast live oak, canyon live oak, Oregon oak, and huckleberry oak. Colony Onion flowers also attract Woodland Skipper and doubtless other butterflies.

    Pretty Face (Triteleia ixioides) has at least some attraction for butterflies; I’ve seen photographs of Acmon Blue and Callippe Fritillary at nectar on its flowers.

    Ithuriel’s Spear (Triteleia laxa) flowers attract Pipevine Swallowtail (fq), Anise Swallowtail, Pale Swallowtail (Butterworth, Shapiro) (fq), Two-tailed Swallowtail (Ken Wilson, on Mt. Diablo), Western Tiger Swallowtail, Variable Checkerspot, Painted Lady, Mission Blue (San Francisco), Propertius Duskywing, Mournful Duskywing (Shapiro), Northern Cloudywing, Skippers, and Alfalfa Looper (Autographa californica, Noctuidae). Ithuriel’s Spear is an excellent nectar plant.

    Near an agricultural area in Bidwell Park, Chico, Pipevine Swallowtail proved the most frequent butterfly visitor and a pollinator (Chamberlain and Schlising, 2008).

    Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), ubiquitous in the wild, easy to naturalize, is a great Lepidoptera nectar plant; species known to visit its flowers include Pipevine Swallowtail (fq), Pale Swallowtail (fq), Western Tiger Swallowtail, Two-tailed Swallowtail, Anise Swallowtail, Desert Black Swallowtail, Sara Orangetip (fq), California Dogface, Southern Dogface, Boisduval’s Marble, Large Marble, Pearly Marble, Cabbage White, Margined White, Western White, Monarch (fq), American Lady, Painted Lady, West Coast Lady, Common Checkerspot, Bay Checkerspot, Callippe Silverspot, Mission Blue, Silvery Blue, Acmon Blue, Sonoran Blue, Common Ringlet, Northern White-Skipper, Propertius Duskywing, Mournful Duskywing, Northern Cloudy-wing, Silver-spotted Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Umber Skipper, Common Roadside-Skipper, spring Skippers, Clark’s Day Sphinx, White-lined Sphinx, and Fairy Moth (Adela septentrionella).

    Pipevine Swallowtail observations in Bidwell Park, Chico, frequently visiting Ithuriel’s Spear flowers, came from this study.

    Chamberlain, S.A., and R.A. Schlising. 2008. “Role of Honey Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in the Pollination Biology of California Native Plant, Triteleia laxa (Asparagales: Themidaceae)”. Environmental Entomology 37(3):808-816.

    http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~jholland/PDF/ChamberlainSchlising2008EnvEnto.pdf

  8. Nice article Arvind! I sometimes grow native bulbs in deep clay pots on a sunny deck. Easier to keep those deer away. Any idea how long most take to get to flowering size when started from seed? I’ve gathered some seeds from my bulbs and am eager to get them to blooming size.

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