Bulbs to plant now for pretty autumn flowers

Submitted photo/Laetitia Sands
Cyclamen, shown here, is one of more plants than you might think that grow from bulbs and produce colorful blossom in fall, when fewer and fewer flowers are around.

NECK DISTRICT — You may think there’s nothing left to do in the garden, after clearing up the debris left by last week’s storm. You may be fed up with 90-degree weather. But if you’re looking forward to fall, why not plant some bulbs that will produce lovely flowers when other plants are starting to pack up for winter?

A great benefit of bulbs, of course, is that you plant them, then sit back and watch them flower and reproduce every year, for years on end. With luck, they’ll form a colony. Minimum work for the gardener, maximum pleasure for the eyes. Yes, I know there are exceptions – the bulbs you must dig up before winter so they don’t freeze to death, like gladioli and dahlias.

But the bulbs described here are winter-hardy.
The first such plant that comes to mind: Autumn crocus. Despite the name, these little plants are not true crocuses at all, but a distant relative. They go by the botanical name colchicum. If you plant colchicum in August, they’ll come up in a few weeks’ time and bloom for weeks after the trees have lost their leaves.

The trick is to plant several different varieties. Each sort will flower for two to three weeks, but if you have an assortment, together they’ll produce blossoms over a period of six to eight weeks.

Autumn crocuses, also known as meadow saffron, send up flowers on two- to six-inch stems before their leaves are fully developed. The foliage, which resembles grass, will appear next spring, then die back in summer.
The flowers, which closely resemble spring crocuses, come in various colors – lavender, purple, yellow, white, some with stripes – and measure two to eight inches. They do best in full sun or light shade and should be planted in a spot where they can remain, undisturbed, for years. They look particularly lovely in woodland gardens or among shrubs. Colchicum were originally native to southern Europe and Asia Minor.

Incidentally, the very expensive spice saffron is made from crocus sativus, an autumn crocus whose flowers are bright yellow. Saffron imparts a special flavor and golden color to whatever food it’s added to.
Another miniature plant that’s winter-hardy and should be planted this month is cyclamen. This little jewel is native to the shores and islands of the Mediterranean.

The so-called wild cyclamen produces much smaller flowers than the cyclamen in florists’ shops. But the winter-flowering varieties (spring-flowering ones also exist) will bloom outdoors for four to six weeks, possibly as late as mid-October.
Cyclamen do best in light shade, in soil enriched with compost. Their flowers, which resemble delicate butterflies in shades of pink, lavender or white, run three-quarters of an inch to one inch long. The entire plant stands only four to five inches high.

Three varieties of fall-blooming cyclamen worth looking for: Cyclamen cilicicum, which has pale pink blossom; cyclamen europeum, which produces crimson-pink flowers; and cyclamen neapolitanum, with rose to white flowers. All have marbled leaves and the last two have fragrant flowers.
It’s a good idea to plant them where you can see them and smell their fragrance as much as possible, for example under a shady tree or in a protected area near a patio or other favorite place to sit. If left in the soil undisturbed, they will survive for years. Don’t worry if cyclamen’s foliage dies back briefly. This usually happens in mid-summer.

A word of advice about this and all the plants mentioned here: Buy them as soon as possible and plant them right away, so they have time to get established before their flowering season.
If you want a taller plant, consider nerine or nerine lily. This one bears flowers somewhat similar to lycoris to look at — clusters of lily-like blossom — on one- to two-foot stalks without leaves in late summer or fall. They make excellent cut flowers.

The flowers in each cluster can measure from one to three inches across and they have pollen-bearing stamens that stretch beyond the petals. Each petal has a dark line up the center which makes the flower appear iridescent. They come in various shades of magenta, pink, white and red, and grow best in light shade. Strangely, nerines blossom most profusely when crowded together.
Nerines’ leaves start to grow in fall, around the time when the flowers appear. They continue through winter and spring, then fade in summer. The plants flower for a week or two, but if you plant several varieties, you’ll have blossom for three to four weeks.

Lycoris, mentioned above, produces often fragrant, three- to four-inch, trumpet-shaped flowers arranged in clusters, for two to three weeks in late summer or early fall. Also known as amaryllis aurea, golden lycoris and golden spider lily, the plant’s blossom may be in shades of pink, lilac, red or yellow, depending on the variety.
Like nerines and autumn-flowering crocuses, lycoris flowers come up without leaves.
The foliage appears in early spring and can grow to two feet in length before disappearing in summer. Lycoris thrives in full sun or light shade.

An autumn-flowering plant which I could not leave out, if only for its several enchanting names, is zephyranthes, known also as zephyr lily, rain lily, fairy lily and flowers of the west wind. The plant has varieties that bloom in summer and spring, as well, so be careful which one you choose.
Zephyranthes grows six to eight inches tall and produces flowers with a typical lily form, two to five inches across, in a range of colors, depending on the variety, including white, pink, apricot, and yellow. Its leaves resemble crocus foliage and it looks particularly lovely in a rock garden, or naturalized in grass. The plant prefers full sun and will bloom for two to three weeks.

Happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.