March 14, 2011

Flowering Bulbs for the Subtropics

Cornukaempferia aurantiaca
"Kaempferia Jungle Gold"

Curcuma roscoeana
"Jewel of Burma"
 Earlier in my life, I lived in temperate Milwaukee. I remember planting bulbs in the Fall, and if you staged  and designed them right, you could have a long running show of flowers starting as early as March, with Crocus flowers and Siberian Iris coming up through the snow. What a switch from Milwaukee to Miami ! There is a far smaller list of bulbs to work with in Miami than in temperate climates, but there are some choices available. Many of the stalwart choices, like tulips, crocus, jonquils, and gladiolus, are hard to grow in the extreme south. In California, there are lots more options due to to the more Mediterranean climate and cooler winters of the coastal areas. In South Florida, we have to cheat a little. There are some bulbs that can offer diversity to a garden collection, but they need some extra care to bring on floweringListed below  are some of my own choices, with myriad others to choose from.

Hippeastrum papilio
Butterfly Amaryllis

Caladium 'Gingerland'


Hippeastrum 'Merry Christmas'

There are swarms of hybrids in each of the genera seen above, with more on the way. Even with the old-fashioned Caladium types, there are new varieties arriving from Thailand, as well as from breeding programs in Florida. The winter-deciduous Kaempferia and Curcuma species are excellent container plants, and can make a great flower show in Spring when the plants are left to grow to specimens.Some of the larger Curcuma species like C. elata make handsome landscape plants, but remember to turn off the water when the plants go dormant.

In most cases, these bulb plants need a dry winter rest of at least 6 weeks, preferably in a rain-free area, out of the ground ( insects love to munch on the bulbs), and in bright filtered light. When the new growths appear, put the plant into as much sunlight as it can handle, and resume normal watering and feeding. Especially with the tropical tubers and bulbs, the plants enjoy frequent fertilizing and almost daily watering to keep up with their rapid growth. A rich organic soil that has good drainage is a prerequisite for good growth. Slow release fertilizers such as Osmocote and Nutricote are excellent sources of ongoing nutrition. The old fashioned methods of adding bone meal and superphosphate to the soil at planting time still work well in making great, stocky tubers or bulbs. The tactics for success are strong light, plenty of food and water during active growth, a watchful eye for snails, and attention to their winter dormant periods. One notable oddity is the Jewel of Burma, which wants to go dormant in mid-Summer ! Give this plant its due attention, and the tangerine-orange inflorescences are well worth the effort. Many growers have set aside their efforts to grow deciduous plants, yet I feel that the plants deserve a Renaissance. After all, the plants save you several months of care !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens     

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