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Marin IJ Articles

Think beyond the familiar and plant native bulbs

  • Juliana Jensen
  • I love a good bulb. Rummaging among the seasonal bulbs for sale at the nursery is an exercise in fantasy. It’s not like a green plant that you just take home and, well, plant. How pedestrian. A bulb takes advance planning and months of patience. When it comes up, you are rewarded with long-lasting, spectacular blooms that often return year after year. If you are like me, you might forget where you planted the bulbs and then you get a glorious surprise, to boot.

    Most people are familiar with the common bulbs. Daffodils and narcissus are handy because they are deer-resistant and easily naturalize (come back year after year). Gladioli bring to mind weddings, but can stand out in the back of a border. Tulips are a bit of work in Marin because they need time chilling in the refrigerator in order to bloom in our climate.

    But here’s an idea: why not go native? Native bulbs are not as easy to come by as the standard gladioli and daffodils, but what fun to have something unusual that is perfectly adapted to our environment.

    Several nurseries carry native bulbs and there are some online suppliers as well. There are organizations such as the California Native Plant Society (www.cnps.org) that offer advice and tips, including sources for native bulbs. They have sales from time to time, as do some botanical gardens.

    One group of native bulbs that is more commonly available is the genus Calochortus. There are several types in this group: mariposa lilies, star tulips, cat’s ears, fairy lanterns and globe tulips. The names are evocative and the flowers come in a tremendous range of colors and shapes

    The Tiburon mariposa lily, Calochortus tiburonensis, is a beautiful, local native bulb from this genus that is listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act. I was lucky enough to see a couple of these delicate lilies blooming at the Ring Mountain Preserve east of Corte Madera, the only place it is known to grow. If you do see a Tiburon mariposa lily, step carefully and please don’t pick it or dig it up for your own garden. It is illegal to do so, and it’s also not nice.

    Another native bulb genus that you plant now, but blooms in early summer, is the Camassia, sometimes called the Indian hyacinth. These are tall, spikey plants that can tolerate wet conditions and then totally dry out after flowering.

    A plant genus that is easy to grow and is useful to plant with grasses or to use to create a wildflower meadow is Brodiaea, or cluster-lilies. These flowers come in a variety of mostly purple shades. Look for the Brodiaea californica or the Brodiacea filifolia. The Brodiaea elegans can be used as a beautiful cut flower.

    Check out the Allium genus. The allium genus also includes onions, but species that are native to California include the Allium amplectens, Allium platycaule and the adaptable Allium unifolium.

    Bulbs are generally available during their planting season for later bloom. Once you have decided on the type of bulb you want, choose a bulb that is heavy and firm, with no soft spots or signs of mildew. Prepare the soil to about 6 to 8 inches, or about three times the height of the bulb. You can plant them a bit deeper if you are hoping they will naturalize. Add bone meal to the soil to help feed the bulb.

    Now, when I first planted a bulb, I was mystified by this one little question: which end up? You generally want the pointy end up, so the bulb rests like a bulb of garlic on its base. The narrow end is where the stalk emerges and heads up through the soil to the sun.

    Then, you’re good to go.