Gardening Unplugged - Fall Bulbs in the Garden

Gardening Unplugged - Fall Bulbs in the Garden

with Amanda Wilkins

By Published October 05, 2022

Shop for Fall Flowering Plants at Plant Delights Nursery

Join Juniper Level Botanic Garden curator, Amanda Wilkins (and Jasper the cat), on a virtual tour of the gardens as she discusses fall blooming bulbs. This episode of Gardening Unplugged was recorded on September 17, 2021, during our Fall Open Nursery & Garden Days.

Fall bulbs featured in this talk:



Video Transcription

My name is Amanda Wilkins and I'm the garden curator here at Juniper Level Botanic Garden. I've been here for just a little over three years now which is like crazy to think. Somebody asked me today... I'm like, oh man it's been three years. But this is our first Gardening Unplugged talk that we've done in more than a year and a half, so I apologize already for my clunkiness. I had, we had a community college group come yesterday and I was like going on about I almost gave my like my garden club talk and I was like, wait a second, these are students. What is that tree over there? So, I promise I’m not going to start asking you what fall bulbs are but... but anyways. I've got a wee list. So, we are we're supposed to keep these to about 15 minutes. I'm going to tell you right now; I'm not going to take 15 minutes. It's probably going to be more [like] 30. But if you... if I start droning on or start talking about anything that you're not interested in please feel free to just wander off. There is no formal got to start with me, got to end with me thing. So, I appreciate you guys coming out today.

So, let's walk in here. I’m going to show you guys some things and we're going to talk a little bit about some cultural aspects of fall bulbs, some of the cool fall bulbs that we grow here, and then why bulbs do bulb things. So, let's do it.

Lycoris, a Fall Blooming Favorite

Now a picture is worth a thousand words right. So, I can pretty much stand here and go - that's a full bulb. But lycoris are one of our, probably most favorites because, I mean, how can you not love that. This is actually kind of past, but I mean this is Lycoris aurea. Aurea because it looks very golden, and this is a species from China. It's a little tough to grow if you read the literature about it. They want like really alkaline soils. They want a high amount of a certain kind of mineral. They want the right amount of drainage, and they want all these certain conditions. And a lot of times Tony likes to plant them up in kind of dry areas and we find that that does best for them. But man, like there are very few of the lycoris, the surprise lilies, that are this big and robust and really have this great color and texture. I also love the fact that the stems can have these really dark, kind of red/green almost black colors sometimes. But they are really probably the most robust. This one here this is I’m going to cheat a little bit an albiflora type. These tend to be in the cream, white, sometimes pink color range. But all these are pretty much native to China and Asia in general. And a lot of our lycoris have come from wild collections or nurseries that have grown them in Asia. But they are one of our major collections. I did a little bit of cheating before I gave this talk so I have a little bit of context. So, in the garden, Tony's always going on we've got about 28,000 different plants in our plant collection and we have a database of them and if we don't have it in the database, it's in an excel sheet somewhere. But of the lycoris we have more than a thousand different accessions from around the world and Tony always likes to joke... a couple years ago we bought the largest collection, the second largest collection, and so now we are the largest collection of lycoris in the world. We're going to actually go out and see it.

We have lycoris kind of sporadically planted throughout the garden and they flower from July all the way until the end of September and it’s really species dependent. The Lycoris radiata, which are… we have one that's called Fourth of July. I have actually taken a picture of that thing in flower on the Fourth of July. And if you ever go to the gulf coast, you'll see that one kind of flowering on the sides of the roads and in gardens. They call them the hurricane lilies down there because they kind of signaled the beginning of the hurricane season, but we call them surprise lilies or naked ladies up here. So that's a little bit about those. But why are they blooming in the fall? You know fall bulbs…bulbs are typically something you think of in the spring you think of your narcissus and your crocuses and all those things that you buy in the grocery store. And then you kill, or you think you kill after they finish flowering. They're probably fine but they are geophytes. That bulb is typically something that is sunken in the ground or just in some kind of even rock sometimes. And sometimes they'll push themselves out of the soil and it's just an adaptation to help them get through really tough conditions. Lilies, which we'll see a little while later, a lot of times lilies are like some something people coddle, and they go... oh my goodness I’m going to kill it and it looks so dainty and everything. Lilies are one of those things that want to push themselves out of the soil sometimes and kick themselves down a mountain to spread themselves around. So, they're pretty tough it's a really great adaptation to deal with also with drought. You know, going dormant, not having to support any leaves during times when the weather's not just… you just don't have enough water you don't have enough light. Go dormant and then come out when the when the sun's up when the rains come. And lycoris, that's pretty much what you're seeing with them as they're waiting for those winter rains to come back. Hello Jasper, I know it's a big group of people and we all love to see the people don't we. Every talk. So, we're going to head this way we're going to talk a little bit about our scree gardens here and a couple of other little things that we see along the way.

It's going to move a little slow and y'all if you see anything along the way please feel free to stop me.

So, we've got this clover looking stuff right here. This is actually an oxalis. if you are a gardener sometimes you hear oxalis as a weed and you want to kill it with fire sometimes. But they are actually... you consider geophytes if you ever have dug these up, if you grow kind of the ornamental oxalis, you'll dig them up and they've got these little like orange, long kind of rhizome looking thingies and they'll go dormant occasionally. We get a lot of phone calls when people's oxalises start going dormant… oh my goodness I’ve killed it. I'm like nope, it's gone to sleep. It's probably gotten too dry or too wet and it's just hanging out waiting for the conditions to get better. But we sell a couple of different ones. We sell a white a white green leafed one as well as several different kind of purple ones and they slowly spread themselves around.

Do they need a lot of water or not?

Nope. They can take a lot of water as long as the soil is well drained.


That's the thing that'll kill them, they will rot out.

Yeah, I have, I did, I wasn't sure whether I was killing it with too much or too low.

Yep. Too much.

So, I’m going to cheat a little bit and talk a little bit about liatris and this is one that has. This is the ‘blazing stars’. This is one that's gone out of flower. But I just love this one that's in flower right now. And both of these are wild collected from... this one's from North Carolina this one's from Texas. We haven't quite put a species name on them because they can be a little hard to key out, especially if the key hasn't caught up with the taxonomy. But if you've ever bought your blazing stars in the spring, they have these little bulb looking things so it's a bit of a cheat. They're technically corms which is a weird kind of modified bulb. You can ask botanists like what's the difference between these different things but it's really not worth it. But I did want to point these out. Tony's really been expanding into different ‘blazing stars’ and I have a real soft spot for them. You can't really beat that as a pollinator plant. The color is always stunning and with these new ones that he's been bringing back from his collecting trips I think we're going to really have some really cool introductions coming soon that are going to be more bushy around those big tall kind of spiky plants.

I see someone has noticed my… the Colchicum tenerii over there. Isn't it great? So that is that... huh? Well drained, well drained. So, this is a fall flowering crocus. True crocus, it's a colchicum. But this is... this is pretty much the signal of the beginning of September. This flowers like clockwork every year for the for the first weekend of fall open house. Every single year I have a picture of this for the first day. It's a little behind actually but you can kind of see here there's little flower buds coming up and just below the surface there are bulbs. They're about they're about this tall.

And again, they're going dormant because where they're from this is a species that was collected in the mid 18 or 1850s in Italy and it's kind of similar to Colchicum 'Autumn Valley'.

With a C?

Yep, c-o-l-c-h-i-c-i-m sorry, u-m. But this one has been really reliable. There are a couple of... not all of the fall crocuses are reliable for us, and I think part of that can be the amount of rain that we get in the summertime. There's another cultivar that's available it's Colchicum 'Water Lily' and it is a... so imagine that, but times four for every flower. And that does come up there's a really nice patch of that that used to be at Duke Gardens that was always my favorite. But you can see... so this is, we call this the alpine berm and this behind me is a new addition called the dry land berm and this is really kind of promoting the idea of these scree gardens. These mountainside rocky outcrops whereas the rocks are weathering down they're creating pockets of this really coarse material. A lot of times there's these deep fissures where the roots of these plants may not have a lot of space to go out, but they can go down. But also, in the going down there's a lot of really sharp drainage so it will… there will be water, but it will quickly go away so... but the plants have kind of adapted to that. I've been in some pretty interesting scree places and that's kind of this PermaTill, which if you want to learn more about the lady is over there, but this material is actually a byproduct of manufacturing I think some kind of slate material or steel material. But it is emulating that kind of weathering erosion environment on these hillsides. And it allows us for to grow some of these plants from places that are not like North Carolina. You know, you're not really going to think like… hey, can I grow a crocus in you know wet hot dry North Carolina where we get you know random six inches of rain all the time. That's not really the same as the alps or the Himalayas or the mountains in Mexico or the southwestern United States. And so, by creating these microclimates we're able to kind of test these plants.

So, we're going to go over here and look at a couple more guys. We're on our way to the research areas but I did want to stop and point out a couple of things these are some zephyranthes, rain lilies, and I’ll talk a little bit more about them later, but you can see we've got some new tags. So, we've just invested in a laser engraver which has really like changed the game. It's such a nice product and it's a lot easier to see what that plant is standing from the side versus reading these tiny little silver tags. So, we're pretty excited about that. But what's happening with this this zephyranthes, this rain lily, is the flowers are spent. And what's happening is you can kind of see this little part here starting to swell and so it's making babies. There are seeds developing inside of that. And here at the garden we have so many different kinds of plants and we have such great soil that we really have to be mindful of what sets seed and what happens to that seed after it's been set. So, I've been talking about these collections that we have because we have such great soil if I let this the seed pods open, we will have rain lilies everywhere. So, I, actually we have a full-time seed collector, who's my assistant, and one of her jobs is to go around and pick all the seed heads off of these guys every single time they finish flowering. And there are some that we collect seeds off of either to send to other people or sometimes we're just interested in what will come up from the seed because we have so many species occurring together. But a lot of times we're just trying to preserve the named cultivars. So, this one has the name this is uh this is actually one from us 'La Bufa Rosa' group which is a general kind of group of plants but this one is Zephyranthes 'Heart Throb'. If I let the seeds fall from that we could possibly mess up the flower color. You might have like a group of pink and then something that might be a white one and that's just, you know, not any good.

What is this? I saw them at the Duke Gardens about a month ago and I didn't, I didn't recognize it.

This is a red hot poker plant, kniphofia.

And I think this one might be rooperi? I'll have to look that one up we have we have about a half a dozen different species and probably a couple dozen different named varieties of this one. And they'll flower all the way from may until September, October sometimes. I think this is the third time this guy has just put up a couple of flowers. But they're native to Africa all throughout the continent of Africa and some of them will be as big as this and then some of them will be like this big. Yeah, you can't beat that color either. It's a great cut flower too.

Beautiful. They stood out, that's for sure.

Obvious, yeah no I love that plant.

I did want to point out one that's not so outstanding. I noticed this little guy here for everybody to see just a little wee white flower. This is Leucojum autumnale. Obviously autumnale meaning autumn. There are a couple leucojum. Aestivalis you may know from the from the spring. Aestivalis meaning the spring season but this one is a little more modest and this is one we call 'September Snow'. Tony is one of the few people in the country that offers this for sale. And it's obviously not a huge seller. It's a bit of a modest plant but it does seed itself around. It's one of those things that if you can tolerate seeding around, how nice to have something like this in September when you're really not expecting, you know, some kind of surprise in the middle of the season. If you want to see the big group though, there is a big planting of it just over here, up this pathway. We're not going to stop and see it because we've got the, we've got the big mass of fall bulbs we're trying to make it to.

So, there's a really tall one right ... right over there. But if you've come to our open house in the summertime, you probably saw these big, tall white flowering lilies, Lilium formosanum. Formosanum meaning formosa, Taiwan. And these guys occasionally seed them around and seed themselves around if I don't deadhead them. And I told my staff please don't deadhead them I want to talk about them in my talk this weekend. But they do. They kind of vary in size and I think it's just a genetic thing. Where some of them can be this short and then some of them can be that tall. There's a volunteer who has been growing them for a while. She has one that was 20 feet tall in her yard. And just huge, big, you know panicles of flowers and the flowers will be about that long. But they are very weedy so I really... we really have to be diligent about when they go to seed. And some people, whenever they deadhead things, there's a couple of different strategies that you can use. You know, if you want to be super lazy, you can kind of wait until this starts turning yellow, or this starts turning yellow and you can cut the whole thing off at the ground. I don't really like to do that with the lilies because they are geophytes and everything that is green that's above ground that's still looking good, and green is photosynthesizing and making sugars for that bulb. So, it's better to kind of just cut the seed heads off. Let the rest of the foliage continue to grow green and do just fine and then once that foliage starts turning yellow, even if it's just like just the color of your shirt right there, that's enough to where you can cut off that foliage and you're not going to hurt or hinder the amount of material that that bulb is gathering. And the same thing goes for your spring bulbs too. Everybody's like don't cut your daffodil foliage off too early, right. The same thing. This will not flower nearly as well if you cut the foliage off too soon.

The Lycoris Trial Gardens

Okay we're almost there everybody. We're so close. This is like the super top secret, you know, we're getting to go into the research area that everybody else doesn't get to go into except for this talk. So, this is one of our research trial areas. So, at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, the main thing that you get to see, right, is the actual display gardens. And then there's like peripheral areas that if you stop at the welcome tent, they're like yeah that's really pretty over there but that's our research area, so please don't go over there. And the reason for that is some of the stuff is proprietary or it's been given to us with the with a research agreement so we don't want anybody kind of seeing it and going oh i can dig a piece of that up and take it home and then we've got it out in the trade.

The super secret trial gardens of JLBG

Lycoris field trials at JLBG

But this is... we call this area Goat Trials because it used to be a goat farm. Very original. And it's divided up among a couple of different plants, but I like to put it out more like a plant library than a display garden. And all of the signs each and every row is one individual plant. And every sign that is in front of a row is what is the name of that plant within it. And this allows us, especially with some of these larger collections that tony has amassed through time, when we're growing them in rows next to each other we can actually compare and contrast. Now let's say we get plant A from you, you know, and plant B from you, what might happen, you guys may be calling it the same thing. We grow it next to each other and go... wait a second. Her plant came up three weeks before her plant... ah that's definitely not the same thing. And then we get to we get to kind of delve into it more. Okay, well where did you get your plant? Oh, you got it from over there and you got your plant from over here. Ah, I bet you they're not the same thing. And now we've learned something completely new. And that's kind of the story that we're kind of teasing out about our lycoris, our surprise lilies. We've acquired most of the larger collections in the world. We constantly are looking for new sources of odd lycoris bulbs from friends that we know, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends of friends and saying... okay, what is available in the trade? What has been collected for science? And how do they compare and contrast to each other. We've been able to determine a lot of things that have maybe a couple different kinds of names are really just the same thing. We've been able to determine that there are actually several different species out there but there are also a lot of species that really are just naturally occurring hybrids. And so, we're able to tell these stories because we've been able to grow them side by side by side in this kind of situation. And as I was saying earlier, a lot of these are flowering all the way from July all the way until the end of September and October. It's really pretty. We're going to head down here and then I’ll let you guys go.

So, as we're walking through some of the things, you're seeing are daylilies and crinums. And we've got some... I think we've got, yep, gladiolus. And part of we what we do with this section also is for production. So, a lot of this stuff will be dug up and potted up and sold in the nursery. That's the way that we support our plant habit.

A Collaboration to Preserve a Private Collection

I have to point these plants out because this was my last week but... So, a couple of a couple of months ago a lawyer contacted Tony and was trying to find out more about the value of a gentleman's collection down in Florida. And they contacted him because he was well known for his ability... for his plant collections. And said... hey can you just come down and assess these collections? And we he finally got to go down a couple of weeks ago. And this gentleman had been working for the EPA for a couple of decades and he was actually an ichthyologist, a fish biologist, but he would go out and collect plants. While he was out on his canoe, he'd see a pretty plant and grab a piece and he started growing them in these rubber-made bins with no holes in the bottom or these black pots with like in standing water trays. and just started studying them and then he started like studying them so much he started crossing them with each other to see if he could get them to, like, become hardier or develop some kind of new characteristic. And unfortunately, he just did it for so long and kind of did it in his backyard he just aged out of it. And it got to the point where he could not take care of himself, but his family reached out to Tony and said... hey is there something that you can do with these? And so last week me and our plant taxonomist and Tony and some other folks from other botanical gardens in the Southeast went down and took samples of his collection. And so, these two newly planted rows are just a smattering of the things that we got from that. And they're only going to be they're only here and in those other institutions. The house went up on the market after we left. It sold in an hour but if well they were but if you looked at it, you're like this looks like a junkyard really. We tried to clean up after ourselves, but it looked really, I mean it just it was so unusual. So hopefully somebody will value them, but I could totally see somebody going hey this 10 acres is great let's bulldoze the whole thing and put a farm here have cows. So, and some of these are things that he had grown for so long and had evaluated so much he'd actually given names to. So, we'll be the first ones to introduce his plants that he developed through his time which is one of the things that tony loves to do. He loves sharing plants, right, and this was this guy's dream was to eventually release some of these things. He just never got the chance. So, we're pretty we're pretty stoked that we're able to. So, I think in like another year if you see like any hymenocallis, the alligator lilies or spider lilies, and you see those, and it says wet something. I think there's like wet giant and wet, well had a wet giant and then little wet or something like that. Anything with the wet series we're going to call it the wet series and those are his plants. But this is the first of it.

The Lambo Field Hymenocallis Collection

Victor Lambou's collection of 30-40,000 plants. These plants, including 291 taxa of Iris and Hymenocallis, eventually found a home at 9 botanical gardens including Juniper Level Botanic Garden. For more details about the JLBG trip to rescue Victor's extensive collection of hymenocallis, read Tony's blog post at

So behind me I was talking about I was talking about zephyranthes earlier, the rain lilies. And you can just see this one right here, this Candida 'Quite White'. You can see they come up in these big clusters of color and maybe a probably tomorrow this is just going to be you know a mash of colors of white and pink and red and one yellow and orange and yellow and orange. And having them planted in rows it just really is this beautiful, beautiful view of all the diversity within the rain lilies. And that's just one of the things that Tony just got really, really serious about. And by growing them in rows again we're able to compare and contrast what these different cultivars do and whether or not they're good for growing here. The zephyranthes, they occur all the way from the southeastern united states all the way down into South America. So, you can pretty much trace them all the way down and there's a couple dozen species of them. They also hybridize with each other. So that makes it kind of complicated for those darn botanists when they're trying to look at them in the wild, they're like well kind of looks like this one but it's doing this thing with like this other one. And then of course the breeding potential is insane there but pretty much they get their name from after it rains especially this time of year when it's not too hot. That kind of like 85 is that kind of cut off but pretty much 85 to 70 degrees and it rains. About three to four days later just a burst of color they'll just suddenly initiate flower buds and you'll just see all of these flower buds. It's really wonderful.


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