Many of us long for the crocuses and hyacinths, tulips and daffodils that we remember heralding Spring in the gardens where we grew up. Although there are a few daffodils that thrive in San Diego's Mediterranean climate, most of the other familiar bulbs need alternating periods of freezing and warm weather to continue to bloom year after year; our benign, frost-free climate just doesn't provide that.
There is, though, a group of bulbs and corms that were bred by the Dutch in South Africa. Since the Cape Region of South Africa, like coastal Southern California, has a Mediterranean climate, these plants grow happily in our Del Mar gardens. Their growth is stimulated by rains that occur in winter following our long, warm, dry season. When planted in a sunny bed with good drainage, they will naturalize, and bloom for many years. All are care-free and make good cut flowers. Here is a description of a few of my favorites:
Babiana stricta —6” spikes of purple and blue flowers with short, pleated, sword-like leaves. They bloom in February and March.
Freesia— Extremely fragrant flowers held on one side of 12” stems. Freesias come in many colors; the white are the most fragrant. They naturalize readily and the volunteers are mostly cream-colored with purple stripes. Freesias bloom in February and March.
Sparaxis tricolor— Clusters of brightly-colored flowers with dark splotches at their bases bloom on 12” stems from February through April. Leaves are sword-shaped.
Homeria collina— Yellow and tangerine flowers bloom on branching 18” stems. Leaves are very long and strap-like.(I actually cut them in half in Spring to avoid tripping on them!) Homeria blooms from March until May.
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Ixia — Wiry 18” stems bear clusters of cupped flowers in pink and white. Ixia blooms in March and April.
Watsonia pyramidata — Related to gladiolus, Watsonias form tall (3'-4') clumps of spectacular pink or white flowers on branched stems. Clumps of sword-shaped leaves may be evergreen. These make an exclamation point in the garden from March until May.
Ipheion uniflorum— This lovely light blue, star-shaped flower is actually native to Argentina, not South Africa. It's beautiful at the front of a garden bed since it only gets to about 6” tall. Spring-blooming, it will grow in partial shade.
Crocosmia/Chasmanthe— Brilliant orange/red flowers adored by hummingbirds. They're 12”-18” tall and resemble freesias somewhat in form. Mine bloom all summer. Beware, they naturalize so easily that they can become pests.
All of these bulbs should be in our local nurseries in September. They should be planted immediately. Plant them at a depth that is equal to about twice the size of the bulb/corm. They will appreciate a light blanket of mulch. I like to toss them from my hand and plant them where they land for natural-looking spacing. They will need to be irrigated during their rapid growth cycle (Fall). After blooming takes place in Spring, watering can be reduced until the following Fall, since they are quite drought-tolerant.
For those of you who become hooked on these flowers, Jim Duggan (the bulbman.com) of Encinitas is one of the foremost breeders of South African bulbs in the world.