By Guest Bloggers Troy McGregor and Jess Kolman
Mention bulbs to most gardeners and you are likely to start hearing names like Daffodils, Tulips and Crocus. What most aren’t aware of or don’t consider garden ready are our own Californian native bulbs. Though their range is vastly reduced from ‘white-man magic’, it is still possible to see many species in open grasslands, redwood forests, rocky slopes and oak woodlands. For the sake of a quick post I’ll group corms and rhizomes under the term bulb. Here are some of my favorites that work well in gardens. I've asked my friend and fellow native plant gardener Jess Kolman to write the descriptions for this post.
In late spring, our grasslands and chaparral are dotted with the pink of Allium unifolium. From tufts of grassy foliage arise sturdy 1-2’ stalks, topped with showy flower umbels, pale pink with a darker stripe through each petal. The blossoms’ large size and pastel colors make them at once bold and dainty. The flowers gradually dry to tan, but remain upright and decorative for some time. Eventually, the plant disappears for fall and winter, but spreads via bulblets and seed for an increased show each spring.
This unfussy plant is at home in many conditions including heavy clay, as long as it has at least part sun while growing. Supplemental watering will extend bloom time by several weeks, and after flowering, either moderate irrigation or complete drought is acceptable. The plant’s garlic scent is subtle to humans, but repels deer. The flowers attract birds, bees and butterflies.
Dichelostemma ida-maia (California Firecracker)
This distinctive flower brings a hint of flamboyance to the spring garden. Bare stalks of 1’ or taller produce bunches of vivid red capsule-shaped flowers, tipped with apple-green. Later, the green tips open and fold back, revealing a yellowish underside and white anthers. As the dangling flowers reach seeding stage, they stand up, so a single cluster may at times have a combination of pendent and upright capsules. The basal leaves are long and lily-like, emerging from the ground in spring and withering by the time flower stalks rise.
California Firecracker prefers part shade and is not fussy about soil. After flowering it can handle a little moisture, but will happily go completely dry. It attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds like a magnet.
Calochortus superbus (Superb Mariposa Tulip)
Calochortus is Greek for “beautiful grass”, and is an understatement in the case of Calochortus superbus. The “grass” is the long, narrow leaves that emerge in spring, and the “beautiful” is the large, bowl-shaped flowers posed atop erect 1-2’ stalks. They may be any number of colors, including yellow, lavender, pink or red, but most often they are pristine white. In all cases, the flower center is mottled with reds and golds, and partway up each petal is a spot of crimson with a gold lining like a halo. These flowers should be given prominent placement so their patterns and beauty spots can be noticed. Nectar-loving pollinators will greatly appreciate them also.
The plants die down late in spring, at which point water should be withheld until fall. They need sun and tolerate various soils, but good drainage is best. These flowers make gorgeous container specimens, if the pots are put away somewhere dry through summer. They also make superb cut flowers.
Calochortus venustus (Butterfly Mariposa Tulip)
This is among the most breathtaking of California’s spring flowering bulbs. Sturdy 1-2’ stalks rise from grass-like clumps, carrying large flower buds that may open white, yellow, pink, lavender or red. The potential flower colors provide an element of surprise, like opening a present, and the petals’ markings look like decorations applied by a folk artist. The flower centers are splashed with patterns of red and gold, and each petal has a crimson spot ringed in gold, with a similar, fainter smudge above it. Early explorers inspired by the flowers’ beauty called them Mariposa, Spanish for butterfly. Actual butterflies and other pollinators will frequently be seen enjoying the blossoms.
Put this plant in a sunny spot with decent drainage, and cut off all water once it disappears to summer dormancy. It is a show-stopper in pots, if left dry though summer, and it also makes a stunning, long-lived cut flower.
Lilium pardalinum (Leopard Lily)
This giant of a lily flowers in summer, providing great drama at a time when many other native flowers are resting. The glossy, slender leaves appear in spring, producing stalks that quickly reach up to 6’ in height, with groups of leaves spaced at intervals. Each stalk bears many dazzling 3” flowers with petals curling upward, and sprays of stamens hanging downward. The flowers are gold in the center, graduating to deep orange or red on the tips, and splashed with dark freckles. The stamens are brilliant yellow with darker pollen-covered tips that bees, butterflies and birds flock to.
This flowering Goliath isn’t difficult to grow but needs moisture year-round, and in hotter climates needs protection from afternoon sun. In cool coastal climates it can handle and may prefer full sun. Put it in a spot where it won’t be missed during winter dormancy, but can reach its full towering glory in summer.
Triteleia ixioides 'Starlight' (Golden Brodiaea)
This cheery and easygoing spring-flowering bulb is nicknamed Pretty Face. Open, airy umbels of six-petaled, star-like flowers in champagne or honey tones are held atop bare flower stalks rising 1-2’ feet over narrow basal leaves. Each petal has a contrasting stripe of olive or rust.
Golden Brodiaea enjoys sunny locations, or can be used to bring sunny color to a partly shaded spot in the garden. It needs moisture through spring, but after blooming it accepts either total drought or moderate watering. Thriving in a variety of soil types, it is a vigorous grower that will appear in ever increasing numbers each spring, to the delight of people, hummingbirds and butterflies.
Triteleia laxa 'Queen Fabiola' (Ithuriel's Spear)
This is one of the easiest yet most rewarding of the native bulbs, electrifying the spring garden with its brilliant hues. Basal clumps of narrow, sword-like leaves appear in spring, sending up numerous bare stalks 1-2’, each carrying a loose, open cluster of deep, blue-violet flowers. The individual flowers have funnel-shaped centers and flare into sharply six-pointed stars of 1-3”. These bold inflorescences are reminiscent of Agapanthus, though more saturated in color, and pair stunningly with the complementary pinks or yellows of other bulbs.
Queen Fabioloa flourishes in clay or sand, sun or part shade. Once the plant fades to summer dormancy, some water is tolerated but drought is preferred. It proliferates quickly and each spring provides a greater feast for the eyes—as well as for butterflies and hummingbirds.
Added by Susan: If you're local (East Bay, California area), Troy will have these available for sale at the March 7 Markham Aboretum plant sale. On-line sources are: