In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
April, 2009
Regional Report

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Spring star flower (Ipheion uniflorum 'Rolf Fiedler') displays long-lasting sky-blue flowers.

Unusual Bulbs for Arid Climates

I enjoy the "surprise" factor that bulbs offer. Buried during autumn's hurly-burly planting season, spring-blooming bulbs start shooting through the soil surface a few months later, reminding the gardener of their presence. Then, when their mature foliage has melded with the overall green backdrop of other plants, perhaps to be forgotten yet again, they send a more forceful reminder of existence: a fabulous bloom to be noticed and admired.

Sometimes bulbs use wild colors (harlequin flower) or unusual shapes (spider lily) that shout, "Look at me." Other bulbs are more cool and circumspect, such as the diminutive blue flowers described below. Although there aren't many bulb-type plants native to the Southwest, there are others native to similar dry, arid conditions such as South America or South Africa that will perform here with minimal fuss. Seek out a few of these bulbs to add a "treasure hunt" for gardening with children. If space is limited, bulbs thrive in containers.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma pulchellum, also sold as Brodiaea pulchella). This Southwestern corm is great for a naturalistic wildflower planting. Native from high and low deserts to the Pacific Coast, it has a wide growing range in which it will perform. Its nodding blue flower cluster on the end of a tall stalk is one of my favorites to spot along hiking trails in spring, often sneaking its way up through foliage of other plants. This plant is a bit difficult to find for sale as a bulb, but seed packets are available through various sources. However, patience is required when starting bulbs from seed!

Spring star flower (Ipheion uniflorum 'Rolf Fiedler' and other varieties). This bulb's chive-like leaves emit a light scent (chive, onion or garlic, depending on one's nose) when crushed that supposedly deters rodents and rabbits. However, because local rabbits graze eagerly on my rain lilies with similar foliage, I tucked my experimental bulb into a raised pot of succulents for safekeeping last fall. Its grassy foliage hanging over the edge of the pot adds a pleasing contrast to the upright rigid shapes of the succulents. Although it has bloomed with only one flower so far this spring, it has been a long-lasting treat, with sky-blue petals still lovely after 10 days. Native to Argentina, these bulbs go dormant in summer, so keep soil fairly dry during dormancy to prevent rot.

African iris or butterfly iris (Moraea polystachya). A light violet-blue flower with yellow markings arises from tall, slender, grass-like foliage. Extended bloom times vary from late fall to winter to spring, depending on growing conditions. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has eye-catching displays of this flower. Caveat: African iris spreads assertively in an improved bed and it is poisonous.


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