Celebrate the Bulbs of Fall!

All across Central Texas, Oxblood lilies (Rhodophialia bifida) are at the peak of their season.  For those of us that live in areas that were once part of Mr. Austin’s original colony, these red trumpet shaped flowers have announced the arrival of fall for generations.

Oxbloods in my front bed

Here in Central Texas, no other bulb is as loved or celebrated in the fall as these Argentinian imports.  Sometime in the 1870’s the German immigrant/botanist/horticulturist Peter Oberwetter introduced these bulbs to the German speaking areas of the Texas Hill Country.  These bulbs were so pretty and so reliable that they quickly spread throughout Texas.  Now, thanks to the work of people like Chris Wiesinger and Dr. Bill Welch, oxbloods (and other heirloom bulbs) are becoming hugely popular throughout the entire Southern part of the U.S.

A mass of oxbloods on an abandoned homesite. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

Even though oxbloods are the most common fall blooming bulb in Central Texas, they are not the only ones.  Two members of the of the Lycoris genus (Lycoris radiata and Lycoris aurea) also produce prolific blooms during the early days of the fall season.  Spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are my personal favorite of the fall blooming bulbs.  All Lycoris bloom on top of a single, unadorned stalk after the first fall rains.  Because of this they are often called “Naked Ladies” or the “Surprise Lily”.  How can you not love their big, red, exotic looking heads?  Their curly petals burst open and arch backward to release long, curved stamens that look like the most gorgeous eye lashes imaginable.  I truly love these flowers!

These exotic looking  Japanese beauties have also been popular here for a very long time.  While they do not reproduce as rapidly as the oxbloods, Lycoris are tough and reliable.  These flowers are beautiful in their own right, but a mass of them is truly stunning.  If you want to see some of the best pictures of spider lilies that I have ever seen, be sure and catch this month’s issue of Southern Living.  My friend Dr. Bill Welch has an excellent article about them and the supporting photography is exceptional.

A stunning mass of Spiderlilies. Photo from The Southern Bulb Company

The blooms of the fall blooming bulbs of Central Texas last for only a couple of very short weeks.  Since they make terrible cut flowers and are almost impossible to dry, get outside in this amazing weather and enjoy them now.  These flowers make these fleeting early days of the Texas autumn truly special.

Since these flowers last for such a short time, be sure to give them ample water while they bloom.  This will extend their life by a few more precious hours. If you don’t currently have your own (or enough) fall blooming bulbs, contact my buddy Chris Wiesinger at The Southern Bulb Company.  Chris knows more about these charming antiques than anyone I know.  His bulbs are truly the best available anywhere.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to check in on other homesteaders and organic gardeners!

P.S. Bulb blooms aren’t the only way I know fall has finally come to my garden.  Each year around this time I begin to see Green Tree Frogs all around the beds and borders of my property.  I don’t know where these guys hide the rest of the year, but the cool fall weather seems to erase their shyness.

This cute little fellow thought the cushion of one of our rocking chairs was a great place to hide.

Bulb Hunting

This past Wednesday, I got a signed copy of Chris Wiesinger’s new book “Heirloom Bulbs for Today” from my friend Dr. Bill Welch.  Chris is the owner of the Southern Bulb Company and a true “Master of Horticulture”.  Since graduating from A&M he has quickly established himself as the leading expert on Southern heirloom bulbs.  His book is packed full of useful information about many of the heirloom bulbs that do really well in Texas and the Gulf South.  This lovely book is as entertaining as it is useful.  It is full of wonderful anecdotes about his bulb hunting expeditions. The photographs and illustrations are both beautiful and a great source for identifying the things you may dig up from time to time.  The text also gives you all of the information you need to harvest, plant and care for these living heirlooms.  If you are interested, you can find it on Amazon.  Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/Heirloom-Bulbs-Chris-Wiesinger/dp/193397995X

Grand Primos and Crinums at the Hueske Homestead

The timing of this book was very apropos.  Two days after receiving it, the weather was a balmy 74 degrees and I had the day off.  So, I decided to do a little bulb hunting of my own.  My wife and I are friends with a wonderful and generous woman that is the owner of an abandoned homestead. This place was the home of two sisters for almost 100 years.  Both were born in the house that still stands on the site.  The sisters were avid gardeners who loved and nurtured this piece of property for almost 80 years.  Their love of growing things is evidenced by the thousands of bulbs and corms that still bloom year round at the abandoned site.  Thanks to the generosity of my friend, I am able to go to the home site periodically and harvest bulbs.

Crinums around an old bird bath

I really cannot convey in words how many bulbs there are at this house.  Each time I visit I swear there are more bulbs there than when I last visited.  The choice is never what to harvest, it is always how much to harvest.  Today I made it easy on myself.  I brought a wheelbarrow and told myself that when it was full I would quit.

Upon my arrival, I stepped inside the gate and started digging.  The soil here is the most beautiful soil that I have ever found.  80 years of care can truly do wonders.  My shovel easily slid into this beautiful loam.  As I dug, I actually felt sorry for the bulbs that were going to have to leave this wonderful place for the hard black clay of my house.  Each turn of the shovel revealed clumps and clumps of bulbs.   After about an hour, I had harvested about 100 Grand Primo narcissus (Narcissus tazette ‘Grand Primo’) and an equal number of Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida).  I also harvested about 50 crinums of an unknown variety. 

Time to go home

It is not really the optimal time to be gathering any of these bulbs. However, I have to harvest when my busy schedule allows.  The good thing about most of these old fashioned varieties is their hardiness.  Even though there are “better times” of the year to harvest them, you can realistically gather bulbs any time of the year.  The worst thing that usually happens if you harvest out of season is they do not bloom the first season they are transplanted.  That is a price I am willing to pay for the access to these living heirlooms. 


Like I mentioned before, there is definitely a right time to harvest bulbs.  For best results, you want to harvest (or divide) bulbs after their foliage has all died back.  This happens at different time for different bulbs. Grand Primo will bloom in late January and early February in our part of the world.  However, the foliage will stay bushy and green until June in some cases.  Bulbs need this foliage to stay in place as long as possible.  The foliage does the photosynthesis for the plant which the bulb then stores to produce next year’s blooms.  Spider Lilies (Lycoris  radiata) and  Oxblood Lilies (Rhodophiala bifida) are fall blooming bulbs that produce foliage that stays green for up to six months.  Because of this, it is a good idea to mark these bulbs so you will remember what you are digging when the time comes.


Oxbloods and Grand Primos divided and ready to plant

When you dig up your bulbs, you want to be careful and not cut them.  For that reason, dig at least six inches away from the dead clump.  I stick the entire blade of my shovel into the soil on an angle toward the bulbs.  I do this all the way around the clump.  This creates a bowl shaped hole.  Next, turn over the bowl shaped mound of dirt and start removing the soil.  You will find the bulbs in clumps.  Carefully separate the bulbs with your hands.  Try to preserve as many root as you can and discard any bulbs that are soft or damaged.

At this point you have a choice.  You can replant them immediately or you can dry and store them.  I always replant immediately.  However, if you want to save them then spread them out in the sun for a few days.  After they are dry, store them in any permeable bag.  You will want to keep them in a cool, dark, dry place until you are ready to replant or share them.


Crinums from the Hueske Homestead replanted in one of my beds

Heirloom bulbs are not too particular about how they are planted.  Basically, just get them in the ground deep enough to cover them.  One rule of thumb says that they should not be planted deeper than three bulb heights.  Corms (like iris and gladiolas) should not be planted as deep.  In fact, a lot of irises like to have the tops of their corms left exposed.  Also, some bulbs like byzantine gladiolas can be difficult to determine which end is up.  If that is the case, simply plant it sideways.

Nothing is more rewarding to me in the garden than growing things that have been shared with me.  My grand parents were all gone before I was old enough to take things from their gardens to remind me of them in mine.  However, thanks to the generosity of people I can still grow things from past gardeners who loved their plants as much as I love mine.  I am so happy to be the care taker of these heirloom bulbs that have now been passed down from two gardeners of another time to me.  I will think of these charming ladies each spring, summer and fall when the bulbs they enjoyed so long ago burst forth and brighten the time that I have left on this wonderful planet.