Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Two for the Fall

Signs of fall are subtle in the desert, longer, golden shadows, days that start later and end sooner. Most years, and this one is no exception, temperature tells us nothing - it is still summer by that gauge. Yet, in all this confusion there a number of good plant clues and none are more welcome than two of my fall flowering bulbs - oxblood lily and naked lady.

I got my first  oxblood lily (Rhodophiala bifida) years ago when  Mark Dimmitt of Tucson gave me a generous handful from his garden. Knowing little about them or their cultural desires, I planted them all over the place. In rocky areas, in good soil, in the shade, in the sun. Everyone of them has thrived and multiplied.

Rhodophiala bifida-  the oxblood lily
A South American relative of our familiar garden amaryllis, oxblood lily is one of those odd bulbs that sends up a flowering stalk before the leaves emerge. Stalks pop up quickly, literally overnight, and announce September as regularly as the turning of a calendar page. The flowers are deep, clear red with an acute tip that makes them look like stars. I can’t get over how reliable they are, and how little they require from me. While they have shown that they will grown in almost any condition of sun or shade, those with the most sun are the first to flower.

Plants always surprise me, and none more so than the flowering of the naked lady. A couple of weeks ago I was out of town, and Gary reported that a hefty stalk was pushing up beneath the apartment window. Baffled I could not remember planting any bulb there, save the long established oxblood lilies, and we noodled about what it could be. I have a terrible habit of acquiring bulbs, either by purchase or as gifts, and popping them in the ground without the benefit of tags. I pledge every time to change my ways, and often I have, but this one clearly got away from me.
Amaryllis belladonna - the naked lady

The day before I was to return, it opened its first flowers and it was obviously a naked lady (Amaryllis belladonna). I was excited and crossed my fingers that it would still be in flower when I got back. I should never have worried.

Naked lady sends up its foot tall flowering stalk producing anywhere from 2 to a dozen flowers on its terminal cluster. It is a show that develops slowly, opening one or two at a time, giving you a long time to savor and enjoy the bloom. Ours set 10 flowers and took 12 days to finish. Mine is the common pink, the color of a baby’s fingernail, although darker ones as well white are available.

I have had a planting of this bulb over by the jacaranda tree since 1997 and they have never even hinted at flowering. In its homeland of South Africa it grows among rocks and other dry places, so I imagined it to be at home in that location. Clearly I was wrong, and the one with a bit more water, and slightly more enriched soil, has show me how to grow this beauty.

The history of naked lady in European and Caribbean gardens is long and poorly documented. It is clear that it was brought to England in the early 18th century and that it was Linnaeus who gave it its name in 1753 although there is scholarly dispute about whether he was looking at the right plant when he did. The Portuguese probably brought it originally to the rest of the world’s attention and it appears to have followed the early trail of the slave trade, Africa to the Caribbean, to England, Portugal and Spain and back to Africa. It has been a common garden plant in all these places for centuries, but unfortunately no one thought to keep track of when and where it arrived.

So while reddened leaves are rare, and nippy nights are months away, I can still call up a fall feeling every time I go out in the garden and enjoy my bounty of fall-flowering bulbs.

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