Ask any gardener about flowering bulbs, and they’ll talk enthusiastically about tulips and daffodils, and their ilk. But there’s a wide range of autumn-blooming bulbs that are just as beautiful, and often more interesting.
Back in their deep evolutionary past, these clever bulbs worked out that by dying down to a swollen base, they could survive tough periods underground. In the case of traditional spring daffs and the like, this meant they were then able to shoot up into the spring sunlight before most of the trees were in full leaf, and their blooms could be pollinated with little competition from the tardy annuals. Clever, right?
Autumn-flowering bulbs use similar subterfuges to survive harsh, hot and dry conditions, and come back to life with the cooler weather or the late summer/autumn rains. This makes many of them particularly suited to growing in parts of Australia.
Here are three autumn-blooming bulbs to plant this month.
These easy-care bulbs grow in a wide range of climates. The strappy leaves of the widely grown pink Nerine bowdenii die down before clusters of ribbon-petalled blooms appear. These flowers are traditionally sugar-pink, but there is also a white form, ‘Alba’, which is considered to have a little more class. Plant the bulbs close to the surface in a sunny spot, then leave them alone. Then there’s the golden ‘nerine’ (Lycoris aurea), a yellow-blooming Asian cousin with whiskery stamens that lend it the name spider lily. This species isn’t as cold-tolerant as true nerines, and it’s a good choice for semi-shade in the subtropics. All of these plants will do well in pots. Grows 40–60cm high and 15cm wide in full sun or semi-shade. Suits subtropical, arid, warm temperate and cold temperate climates.
The deep red blooms of paintbrush lily (Haemanthus coccineus) lend it the alternative name ‘blood lily’. It’s also sometimes called ‘April fool’ in its native southern Africa, because the naked blooms appear so unexpectedly. The shaving-brush flower centres are protected by a ring of upright, petal-like valves, and the astonishing paired leaves that emerge after flowering look like cartoonish flying elephant’s ears (remember Dumbo?). Water them every couple of weeks while the leaves are there, but stop when they start to die off. Grows to 40cm high and 60cm wide in full sun or semi-shade. Suits subtropical, arid, warm temperate and cold temperate climates.
With tiny white, red-based hanging bells and thread-like foliage, autumn snowflake (Acis autumnalis syn. Leucojum autumnale) is one for lovers of the delicate and dainty. You can grow them in pots, if necessary, so they’re not overgrown by neighbouring plants. Grows to 20cm high and 10cm wide in full sun, semi-shade or shade. Suits arid, warm temperate and cold temperate climates.
For more ideas on autumn-flowering bulbs to plant now, check out the December 2021 issue of ABC Gardening Australia magazine, out now.