Friday, 14 April 2017

Autumn bulbs (remind me of Mum).

From dainty-looking ivy-leaf cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium, above), to  flamboyant white belladonna lilies (Amaryllis belladonna alba), for me, autumn bulbs each have a story to tell.
Mum used to tell me that she bought her first cyclamen tuber around 1960 or 1961 and from the 1980's on had a great sweep of them, under deciduous trees, along her drive. After a while, ants spread the seeds to the nearby lawn so the beautiful leaves were turning up everywhere - to Dad's dismay.
At Macedon Joan Law-Smith grew it in ''sheets of pink and white'' at her wonderful garden at Bolobek. She once described the autumn-flowering C. hederifolium, with its dark green leaf and silver mottling, as ''a perfect example of nature's artistry in matching leaf to flower...No two are alike in size, shape or colour."
Both Mum and I grew cyclamen species from seed (mainly from the UK) to get a range that would give us flowers over a long period. In my 20's I read `The Urban Woodland' (1986)  by Suzanne Price, in which she describes cyclamen flowering year-round (in SE Australia) by growing C. hederifolium blooming in autumn, C. coum in winter, C. persicum in spring and C. purpurescens in summer - although I prefer C. repandum for spring flowers. I grow C. purpurescens by the front door and visitors (if gardeners) are often puzzled by the summer flowers; occasionally I get a non-gardener saying `I've got that' and I can't help but reply, about this rarity, `really, are you sure?' Most (of the plants, not the visitors) have patterned leaves that are very, very pretty - and (for this species) evergreen.
Just now my Cyclamen hederifolium are starting to bloom really well, while my white belladonna lilies have finished for the season.

I had just started to really enjoy gardening in my early or mid-twenties when I visited a bulb farm in Gembrook, not too far from my parents new home in Emerald in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. It was March 14th, my mother's birthday, and I bought 2 of these white belladonna lilies (above) - rare or uncommon bulbs - then, anyhow - (one for me, one for her) and was thrilled when the delightful farmer dug them up and left attached the perfect flowers, in enormous umbels, a heavy bunch on each stalk. I think he enjoyed my enthusiasm, too.
Most bulbs multiply well, which is part of their charm.
I tried counting my bulbs the other day. I'd picked 2 bunches at different times to enjoy inside and this left about 2 dozen flowering size bulbs (and many smaller). A good friend would be offering them around but I won't on two grounds: they are very top-heavy, making the pink one look elegant by comparison. I'll share that one. But also: I am using my white belladonna lilies for a massed effect, so I need the numbers. (Do other (lucky) owners of country gardens feel like this?) I love to share my garden plants, but some things I can't spare. (But I do give away hellebores, iris and obedient plant constantly.)

I still remember that day around 1988 driving into `Patnitop', as Mum and Dad called their property (after a mountain pass they loved in Kashmir), opening the boot, and delighting Mum with her showy birthday present, also called Amaryllis belladonna alba, with its heady sweet scent.

Then Dad sold `Patnitop' last year and we were allowed to dig up just a few of her bulbs - and it was autumn (see post 23/4/16).
My sister R and I spent a lovely hour in Mum's garden where the autumn bulbs had decided to put on one last hurrah; especially nerines in shades of red and pink, neon-lit and traffic signal-hot (and we oh-so carefully kept our unearthed treasures separate and labelled).
I've never had much success with nerines (yes, I know: the bulbs need the necks exposed, they need full sun, and the bulbs flower best when crowded). But Mum not only grew them well, but her magic lived on for several years and even into my garden - many are in bud, or flowering, now, despite my thinking a year ago - `should I really take these? - they won't do well!' It really feels like a bit of her green thumb wizardry is in the garden now that these are flowering. Some are bright raspberry pink, but with delicate slim petals that in no way dominate. They just add the tiniest spot of colour to the raspberry-and-silver bed, just as its perennials wind down with the cooler weather. Red ones (Nerine `Fothergilla Major', above) are further from the house but also add that welcome splash or dash of colour.
But what is this magic of Mum's gardening, that made nerines flower?
Well, Mum took her gardening seriously. (Plus she had good mountain soil.)
Maybe I just need to fertilise more regularly, garden, not just play and tinker.
There's a thought.
Jill Weatherhead is horticulturist, writer, garden designer and principal at Jill Weatherhead Garden Design who lives in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and works throughout Victoria (

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