SEPTEMBER 1, 1997
Surprising Bulbs That Bloom in Fall
by Mary Robson
The last weeks of August find nursery buyers awaiting their shipments of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocus. Just after Labor Day, signs in stores read "Think Spring Now!" True, October and November are excellent months for planting spring-blooming bulbs. Designing new borders and planting spring bulbs is on of the pleasures of gardening.
Surprisingly, some of the bulbs shipped into stores right now are meant to be planted immediately and will bloom before Halloween. These are more than garden curiosities. They offer a fresh look to the fall garden, blooming amid falling leaves. And many will naturalize and come back year after year.
The first surprise is the saffron crocus, the same crocus that we treasure for cooking. Saffron, the gold thread of culinary exotica, used for millennia as both a dye and a spice, grows from a small crocus bulb that blooms in the fall. The specific crocus is Crocus sativus, and it's easy to order from nurseries or comprehensive bulb catalogs. The saffron is the dried stigma (female part) of the plant, harvested from an attractive small bluish flower that blooms here in late September and early October. Gardeners are generally surprised to learn that any crocus will bloom in fall, and even more surprised to find that saffron does. This particular crocus turns the seasons upside down. Check nurseries soon because many of them will get this autumn crocus for sale around Labor Day.
Plant them immediately now for later September of October bloom. Choose warm, sun-drenched soil. Several experts suggest planting them deeply, about 4 inches down, to assure continued bloom. The corm is small, and it wouldn't seem normal to plant this deep. But if planted too close to the surface, they will multiply but fail to provide saffron.
This crocus, though native to the Mediterranean coastal areas, will grow well in the maritime Northwest if it's planted in full sun in a warm location. Heat is necessary to ripen the bulbs and to allow them to multiply. By sun, I mean all day sun. Planting them in a well-drained area in on the edge of a sunny vegetable garden would work fine. It would work especially well if the garden area had been limed. Many of these crocus are native to limestone cliffs and they do not do well on acidic soils such as our native soils. Think of this flower as longing for Spain, and plant it accordingly.
They do not need summer watering. The corms go dormant after sending up long leaves in spring (when happily settled in the garden, saffron crocus leaves, which look like grass, can be 18 inches long in spring, not the 4 inches or so that we expect from the spring-blooming crocus.). The leaves die off and flowers emerge again in early fall. When the flowers are fully open, pull out the shiny orange stigmas, and try them on a screen. Combine with shrimp and rice for wonderful winter paella.
Another fall-blooming crocus forms clumps of soft blue flowers. This is Crocus speciousus, a crocus with no common name but uncommon beauty. Plant it in clumps at the sunny front of shrub of perennial borders. The soft blue crocus flowers combine nicely with low-water use plants such as lavender, rosemary, and cistus (rock roses). They require the same sunny, open exposures. Look for this fall-blooming crocus now and plant it as soon as it's found. All crocuses do best where they will bake in a hot summer spot.
Sometimes garden centers will display a tray of "miracle flower," blooming without water or soil in September and October. This is the fall-blooming colchicum, a fist seized bulb in the lily family. The flowers, pink, soft purple, or white resemble fragile chalices. The bulbs must be planted as soon as received, because they will thrust flowers up long before they form roots or leaves.
Colchicum is sometimes called "Waterline Flower" or "Autumn Corucs," though it resembles crocus not at all. Plant them in a sunny, well-drained spot. They will manage in part shade, and look very striking coming up in front of a planting of Japanese anemone of next to perennial candy tuft. Colchicum flowers die back in fall, and then leaves emerge in spring, large, green vigorous and sometimes unwelcome leaves (if they are in front of some small treasure for spring bloom.) Combine these bulbs with tough perennials like ferns and iberis. Colchicum is the sort of plant that slides off the gardener's mind during winter, and then the wads of leaves appear as complete astonishment. "Did I plant THAT?" They do multiply naturally and come back year after year.
All parts of colchicum are poisonous, as it is a source of colchicene, an extract used medicinally in the treatment of gout, among other uses. If avoiding toxic plants if important for your garden, don't plant colchicum.
Cyclamen are often thought of only as short-lived plants for indoor enjoyment. however, a number of hardy, handsome cyclamen thrive in fall gardens. They are small, dainty plants with elegant leaves that cover shady areas in winter. Plant now, and the butterfly-like flowers will come up from November through January. One particularly well adapted to local gardens is Cyclamen hederifolium, with soft pink flowers. Leaves are patterned with white on dark green.
Cyclamen bloom and leaf out in winter, but disappear in summer. It's easy to allow something else to swamp them when the summer garden is at the fullest. Mark the spots and clear away other foliage, because cyclamen are elegant in the fall and winter garden.
Another joy of life in the maritime Northwest is the thrill of year-round gardening. Try some fall-blooming bulbs for a treat!