Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


Summer Show-Offs
From little brown lumps, some of the season's most spectacular actors grow

With its sunny yellow petals and sunset-orange center, the dahlia 'Moonshine' puts on the perfect summer show.

"The Bulbs of Summer" sounds like some Grade B drive-in movie, and in truth most of these beauties are showy enough for the big screen. When we think of summer flowers, roses and annuals come to mind. But what about dahlias, lilies, callas and crocosmia? Bulbs all, and some of the most dependable and lovely of summer-bloomers. To continue with the theme of summer drama, how about the names of these dark-leafed dahlias I'm growing this year? The hot pink 'Fascination.' 'Midnight Sun,' a golden flower with purplish foliage. 'Engelhardt's Matador,' for which I paid a ridiculous amount, sucked in by the description of shimmering lavender flowers with bronze foliage. Then there is 'Moonshine,' a bright gold with orange ring, as cheery as a sunflower, and 'David Howard,' the only dull one of the bunch. It has turned out to be kind of a washed-out orange, rather than the rich apricot promised.

We're programmed to order bulbs in the summer and plant them in the fall, nudged along by catalogs that seem to arrive earlier each year. With these late bloomers, however, most need to be planted as the ground warms up in the springtime. It is so much easier to find room for bulbs in late spring than it is in autumn, when the garden is at its fullest.

Summer bulbs share with tulips and daffodils the miracle of arriving dormant, with everything needed to bloom and thrive wrapped up in a gnarled little brown lump. Some, like lilies, are perfectly hardy and can be planted in November, to multiply and bloom for years when correctly sited (sun, good drainage). I leave dahlias and calla lilies in the ground year-round, too, and if they are mulched and given well-draining soil to prevent winter rot, they come through the cold just fine.

Now In Bloom
Hydrangea aspera needs moist soil and semi-shade like the familiar mophead hydrangeas, but there the similarities end. Tall and rangy with large, soft leaves and flat, mauve lace-cap flowers, this hydrangea brings a touch of the tropics to temperate gardens.
While daffodils, tulips and crocus look their best planted in drifts, the summer bulbs can be integrated into beds and borders just as you'd use perennials. Not that people don't grow ghettos of dahlias, all sticking up and tied rigidly to their respective stakes, but if you can keep the slugs off them in a mixed border, dahlias can look quite natural and provide a long note of color from midsummer until the first frost. Or grow any of the summer bulbs in pots, where their lovely and sometimes intricate flowers are shown to best advantage. Then they can be brought center stage when in bloom, and tucked aside during the dreaded stage when the foliage withers slowly away.

Many lesser-known summer-blooming bulbs are worth a try. Acidanthera bicolor is from tropical Africa and looks like an elegant gladiolus, with white, star-shaped flowers blotted in purple, a sweet scent and graceful, swaying foliage. It is one of the best-smelling and loveliest flowers I've ever seen, and blooms late in the summer when white looks especially good. Dierama pulcherrimum (angel's fishing rod) is from South Africa and is hardy here when mulched, forming a large clump with pink flower bells dripping from airy curves of wand-like foliage. Eremurus, or foxtail lilies, are so gorgeous I keep trying to grow them despite the fact they always die out in my garden. The bulbs look like big, flat spiders, and the bloom grows to a 5-foot spike covered in hundreds of little pink, white, yellow or apricot flowers. Could someone please tell me how to keep these going? Tigridia pavonia, or tiger flowers, are as exotically beautiful as an orchid. Three petals surround a spotted and outlined center, all in shades of orange, scarlet, lilac, pink and cream. And if you really want to feel like a successful summer bulb grower, plant one clump of crimson flag (Schizostylis coccinea) a pretty little late-bloomer with grass-like foliage that is romping through my garden unrestrained.

If you'd like to try some of the more unusual bulbs, many can be found at the Arboretum Foundation Fall Bulb Sale Oct. 7, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Call 206-325-4510 for information.)

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is

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