When I became interested in growing bulbs, particularly tropical amaryllids, I soon learned that some species were either priced far beyond my budget or were simply unavailable from commercial vendors. I had been growing orchids for about two decades, so it took me a little while to cotton on to the fact that most bulbs can be grown easily from seed. Unlike orchid seeds, which require lab equipment and good sterile technique for flasking, bulb seeds only require appropriate potting soil and a modicum of patience. Specialist nurseries sometimes offer seed of rare species at affordable prices, and bulb enthusiasts are generous with seeds from their plants, particularly through hobbyist exchanges like that run by the Pacific Bulb Society.
I have found that exchange seed is usually labeled accurately, but occasionally I get a surprise when the plants finally flower. That’s not to say that the donor deliberately mislabeled the seed. Most hobbyists aren’t taxonomists and may be growing mislabeled plants without realizing it. Many amaryllids enthusiastically hybridize, and bees or other insects could cross-pollinate plants in a mixed collection. And of course, accidental mix-ups could occur either in the donor’s greenhouse or in the seed exchange inventory.
Which brings us to the plant above (and below).
In July 2014, I obtained seed ostensibly from Hippeastrum stylosum, a species from northern Brazil and Guyana that is not available from bulb vendors. Judging by photos on the web (Google), the inflorescence of H. stylosum carries multiple salmon-colored flowers with distinctively elongated stamens and pistil that protrude well beyond the petals.
A couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see an inflorescence forming on one of the seedlings. The flower has finally opened, and as you can see, it isn’t H. stylosum. It’s clearly a hybrid involving a Hippeastrum of some kind, but its precise parentage is unclear. Judging by its narrow, curled petals, strong red color, narrow foliage, and the fact that it produced a single flower, I wonder if it is xHippeastrelia, a hybrid between Hippeastrum and the Mexican amaryllid Sprekelia formossisima
I have several other seedlings, but as they all have identical foliage, I don’t hold out much hope that they’ll prove to be H. stylosum.
Oh, well. You win some, you lose some. Anyone have the true Hippeastrum stylosum?
It is a fairly typical day for September in North Carolina: Bright sun, 85 F (29.5 C), no significant rain last week, and no rain forecast for the next week. The intensity of the sun made it difficult to get decent photos and doesn’t encourage hard work in the garden or in the greenhouse.
Nevertheless, here are six pictures from the garden today. See the Propagator’s blog for his six and for links to other blogs who are participating in Six on Saturday.
1. Sternbergia lutea (autumn daffodil)
I could have sworn that this little amaryllid was from South America, but when I looked it up just now, I learned that it is actually Eurasian, with a range extending from the western Mediterranean to Tajikistan. Usually I get a nice little clump, but this year the bulbs have been sprouting and flowering one or two at a time. Perhaps in this dry weather they haven’t had the usual environmental signals that induce mass blooming.
2. Lycoris radiata (hurricane lily, red spider lily)
Now that they have finished flowering, the L. radiata bulbs are starting to sprout leaves.
3. Hibiscus coccineus (red swamp mallow)
It looks as though something drilled right through this flower when the petals were still folded together in a bud. Native to the southeastern U.S., H. coccineus does very well in piedmont gardens and flowers for much of the summer. In winter, the dried stems and seed capsules add interest to an otherwise barren flowerbed. Despite its name, it grows well in regular garden soil, and its fat taproot helps it survive drought.
The palmate leaves of this species somewhat resemble a particular herb that is still illicit in North Carolina. In the spring, before my plants start producing their dinner plate-sized flowers, I often think of this news story from 2004.
4. Conoclinium coelestinum (blue mistflower)
The color balance of this photo seems to be off , but I’m not sure if it is my phone camera or monitor that’s to blame. If you see a magenta flower, imagine that it is more a bluish lavender. This species is native to the eastern U.S., from the Great Lakes to southern Texas, and although the flowers are beautiful at this time of year, I rather regret introducing it into the garden. It spreads very aggressively, and the fluffy seeds drift all over the place.
5. Basella alba ‘Rubra’ (red malabar spinach)
Every spring, I start a pot of malabar spinach from seed collected the previous autumn. The leaves really are quite tasty in soups or stews, but since we don’t cook a lot of stews in the summer, it primarily serves as an ornamental. The seeds also survive the winter in the soil, and I’m starting to see more plants sprouting in flower beds where birds have dropped seeds or I have inadvertently raked them along with fallen leaves. They look interesting and don’t seem to do any harm, so I just leave them alone.
6. Cattleya labiata var rubra ‘Schuler’
In the greenhouse, the most famous of the unifoliate cattleyas is blooming. C. labiata was the first of the large flowered cattleyas to be discovered, and it was one of the species responsible for the Victorian orchid craze. It was first imported into the U.K. in 1818 and caused a sensation, but its origin wasn’t correctly reported. Plant collectors scoured South America, discovering many other spectacular orchids in the process, but the Brazilian habitat of L. labiata wasn’t rediscovered until 1889.
Unfortunately, my greenhouse tends to be too bright and dry at this time of year, and the flowers don’t last long. You can see that the dorsal and lateral sepals of some of these flowers have dried out prematurely. I tend to do better with the unifoliate cattleyas that bloom in late winter.
Lycoris flowers have featured in several recent posts on this blog (see here, here, and here), so I thought it would be worthwhile to show you some bulbs and talk about how they should be handled and where you can obtain them.
Lycoris are best planted during their dormant period, summer to early autumn. The winter-foliage types will start growing leaves soon, so we are almost at the end of the planting season. As seen above, mature bulbs come in a variety of sizes, but they all have long necks. When planting, the tip of the neck should be right at the soil surface, although if I am worried that a bulb is too shallow to withstand the winter, I’ll often cover it with some loose mulch. Choose a spot where they won’t need to be disturbed for many years.
If dried off and sold without roots like Narcissus, Lycoris bulbs will often take several years to re-establish and start flowering. You’ll get more immediate gratification with bulbs that retain fresh roots like those shown above, but even then, they may take a year to settle in before you see flowers. These are not bulbs that you can force for instant flowers, but they will greatly reward a patient gardener.
Finding Lycoris can be tricky. I have occasionally seen L. aurea and L. radiata packaged with the other bulbs in big box stores, but I would avoid L. aurea unless you live somewhere with mild winters like coastal South Carolina and Georgia, or the gulf coast of Texas. L. radiata will be fine in zones 6 and 7 and is a great choice for the NC piedmont.
Unless you are lucky enough to live near a nursery that propagates Lycoris, you’ll almost certainly need to search for bulbs online. You may see advertisements for blue, purple, or rainbow Lycoris illustrated with pictures of L. radiata in an array of colors found only in Photoshop. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. I would also be careful with vendors selling Lycoris seeds inexpensively. Many Lycoris hybrids are sterile, and those that are fertile produce relatively few seeds. It may take upwards of ten years for seedlings to reach blooming size, and that’s a long time to wait to find out if an eBay seller was legitimate. Lycoris bulbs aren’t cheap, but I think you’re much better off paying for mature bulbs than trying to grow from seed. Save that for when your own plants start flowering.
I have had good experiences with all of the following vendors. Bulbs were healthy, mature, and correctly labeled. All are in the USA. Sorry, European and Asian readers.
This week has felt distinctly autumnal, with a couple of days barely getting into the 70s (21-24 C), and the rest of the week in the low to mid 80s (27-29 C). The number of hummingbirds fighting over the feeders has decreased sharply, and I am starting to notice the first hints of color in the forest trees. The tulip poplars and black tupelo, always the first to show the change of season, are dropping their leaves all over the driveway and paths, but peak color is probably another six weeks away.
In the garden, there are fewer flowers, but more seeds and berries. Several plants whose flowers featured in earlier blog posts are back again this week.
As always, navigate over to The Propagator to see his six and those of other garden bloggers.
1. Canna ‘Flaming Kabobs’
I love the spiky seed capsules of Canna species and hybrids. This plant was blooming for “Six on Saturday #4” on July 15 and shows no signs of stopping. Has anyone ever tried germinating Canna seeds?
2. Gloriosa superba (flame lily)
My G. superba plants have produced seed capsules that are now starting to split. The ripe seeds, like the rest of the plant, are highly poisonous.
3. Aesculus sylvatica (painted buckeye)
I showed the flowers of this species back in April. It is one of the first woodland species to leaf out in spring, and it’s also one of the first to drop its leaves in autumn. In a dry year, leaves will start yellowing in August. Unlike their relative the horse chestnut, North American Aesculus have smooth capsules. The seeds also seem to be softer than horse chestnut seeds. I don’t think they’d be very good for conkers.
4. Callicarpa americana (American beautyberry)
C. americana, with a native range extending from southern Maryland to eastern Texas, is one of the most beautiful of our native shrubs. Birds adore the berries, so it is a great species to grow if you want to attract wildlife. Despite the beauty of the native species, I notice that its Asian relatives are frequently used by landscapers. The native is larger in every way than the Asian species, so perhaps they’re better suited to smaller gardens. If you have the space, I think C. americana is superior, and you can cut it back to the ground in early spring to keep it under control. It blooms on new growth, so you’ll still have a good crop of berries in autumn.
Because it grows fast and spreads wide (my largest is about 8′ (2.4 m) tall and 10′ (3 m) wide), it’s useful as a quick source of shade for woodland perennials.
4b. Callicarpa americana var. lactea
A recent purchase still in its nursery pot. I have wanted a white beautyberry for a while but only saw Asian plants at nurseries. Finally found this one at the Raleigh farmers market last week. I haven’t decided where to put it yet, but I think the white berries will brighten up a shady spot.
5. Hymenocallis occidentalis
Here is some self-pollinated seed from the plant that bloomed in early August. I’m not quite sure what to do with these seeds. Most tropical Hymenocallis and Crinum seed germinates soon after it ripens, whether or not it has been planted, but H. occidentalis comes from regions that have a distinct winter. Do its seeds need a cold stratification before sprouting?
I have planted about half the seeds and will keep them warm in the greenhouse over the winter. These remaining seeds I will probably store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for six weeks before planting.
Big fleshy amaryllid seed like this usually does best if you just press it into the surface of the soil rather than burying it. When it germinates, it produces a single sprout that grows down into the soil and swells into a tiny bulb. Only later does the little bulb produce a leaf.
6. Rudbeckia species
And finally, some flowers. I wish I could remember what Rudbeckia species this is. I got the seed some years back from the NC Botanical Garden, but I forgot about the pot. The seedlings rooted into the ground through the pot’s drainage holes, flowered, and produced a second generation in the ground at the back of my shade house. Now I have several clumps of volunteer plants growing in less light than is ideal. Perhaps this winter I’ll move them to a sunnier spot. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll uncover a label in the leaf litter.
As of last Saturday, I thought that I’d be reduced to doing a “Six on Saturday” focused on weeds this weekend. But during the week some very interesting surprise lilies (Lycoris) lived up to their name, and I noticed some other flowers that I had overlooked in the garden and greenhouse. I still think a post on weeds isn’t a bad idea, but I can’t resist showing you these flowers today.
(As always, visit Six on Saturday’s host The Propagator to see his Six and links to those of other participants.)
1. Lycoris radiata var. radiata (hurricane lily, red spider lily)
A question for the photo geeks out there: what is it about red flowers that makes them so difficult to photograph? Other colors are fine, but with red flowers I frequently end up with an oversaturated blur unless the lighting is just right. To get this image, I had to manually set the camera to decrease contrast and saturation, but now it looks a little more pink and washed out than it really should.
Anyway, L. radiata var radiata is the sterile triploid form that has been kicking around southern gardens since the 1840s. I can’t really tell any difference between this and the fertile diploid L. radiata var. pumila, except that var. pumila will set seed and blooms about three weeks earlier.
2. Lycoris aurea (golden spider lily)
Lycoris aurea is a tropical/subtropical species native to southern China and Indochina , so its winter-growing foliage will not tolerate more than a few degrees below freezing. I grow it in a 5 gallon (19 liter) plastic nursery pot, outdoors until first frost and then in a cool corner of the greenhouse. When it goes dormant in spring, I leave it in the greenhouse so it experiences consistently warm, humid conditions, and I give it an occasional splash of water so that it doesn’t get too dry. This year, I put it back outside right around September 1, and it produced this inflorescence after a good soaking rain.
For temperate climates, the closely related  but much hardier L. chinensis is a better choice if you want a yellow Lycoris. I have two in the garden, but they haven’t bloomed yet.
3. Lycoris x albiflora…A white Lycoris hybrid
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Until a few days ago, I was perfectly happy calling this plant Lycoris x albiflora, the label it carried from an online bulb vendor several years ago. Then I read a 2014 paper by Shude Shi and colleagues  that digs into the phylogeny and evolution of Lycoris species. Based on their DNA sequencing, they conclude that L. x albiflora is a natural hybrid of L. sprengeri x L. chinensis. That’s fine, except that those two species both produce their leaves in early spring. My plant produces its leaves in winter, like L. radiata. Its flowers also look like a pale version of L. radiata, so I wonder if it might actually be L. straminea (L. chinensis x L. radiata var. pumila according to Shi et al.).
Adding to my confusion, there are apparently other studies (which I haven’t yet tracked down) suggesting that L. x albiflora is actually L. radiata x L. aurea. That’s more plausible. It would be consistent with the growth habit of my plant, and L. x elsiae, a hybrid of these same two parents, looks a lot like my plant. Confirmation of my plant’s ID would probably require DNA analysis, so I suppose it will remain “white Lycoris hybrid.”
Regardless of its true identity, its pale color points to some interesting genetic interactions. All of its putative parents are brightly colored: red (L. radiata), yellow (L. chinensis or L. aurea), or pink (L. sprengeri). I would assume that genes from one parent species are capable of suppressing the primary pigment in the other parent. Something similar occurs among lady slipper orchids, where crossing the pink Paphiopedilum delenatii with bright yellow P. armeniacum produces P. Armeni White.
4. Rhodophiala bifida ‘Hill Country Red’ (oxblood lily)
Another poor quality photo of a gorgeous red flower. The tag tells you most of what you need to know about this little amaryllid. R. bifida ‘Hill Country Red’ is an heirloom bulb introduced into Texas by Peter Henry Oberwetter of Austin sometime after the U.S. Civil War . Like Lycoris radiata, it produces its grassy foliage after flowering in autumn and goes dormant in spring.
5. Abutilon ‘Orange Hot Lava’
I wouldn’t have believed that an Abutilon would be hardy in our climate, but a couple of years ago, I saw the Brazilian species Abutilon megapotamicum growing outdoors at J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. With that encouragement, I planted one in my garden last year, and it came through the winter’s snow and cold with flying colors. This year, I am trying a couple of A. megapotamicum hybrids, of which ‘Orange Hot Lava’ is my favorite. ‘Orange Hot Lava’ has a more upright growth habit than A. megapotamicum, and I love the darker veining on the flowers (which it has been producing non-stop since early spring). Hopefully it will prove to be as hardy as its parent.
6. Trichoglottis atropurpurea
And finally, to round out the six for this week, an orchid from the greenhouse. T. atropurpurea (syn. T. brachiata) is an epiphyte from the Philippines which sprouts thick roots and long-lasting flowers at random intervals among its short, leathery leaves. I grow my plant in an empty clay pot with a wire pot hanger helping to support the slowly vining stems. Check out the amazing white fur on the hot pink lip!
2. Shi, S., Sun, Y., Wei, L., Lei, X., Cameron, K.M., Fu, C. (2014) Plastid DNA sequence data help to clarify phylogenetic relationships and reticulate evolution in Lycoris (Amaryllidaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society176: 115-126.
3. Ogden, S. (2007). Garden Bulbs for the South, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.