BY TOVAH MARTIN / Roxbury, Connecticut USDA Zone 5b
Places to Go
If you’re one of those people who prefer to live toasty, you can still get a dose of lachenalias. Smith College Botanic Garden (www.smith.edu/garden) in Northampton, Massachusetts, sprinkles lachenalias liberally into their Spring Bulb Show, which traditionally kicks off on the first weekend in March and runs for two flower-packed weeks. Can’t wait that long? Lachenalias are bursting out all over starting in January in the greenhouses at New York City’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden (www.bbg.orgj, New York Botanical Garden (www.nybg.org), and Wave Hill (www.wavehill.org). You might just be inspired to go home, throw on a sweater, and start a lachenalia collection of your own.
I see lachenalias as the houseplants of the future. When energy costs shoot up so high that even multimillionaires are thinking efficiency, lachenalias will be all the rage. Sure, we might miss the African violets (doomed the split second nighttime temperatures drop below 55°F), but lachenalias will fill their niche with scarcely a shiver. These inexpensive winter-blooming South African bulbs are a clear incentive to throw on another sweater and chill out.
With a mere sip of water for encouragement in autumn, the bulbs start sending up small, dark green, muscari-like foliage. In the dead of winter, the flat, sometimes puckered, often mottled six-inch-long leaves might be thrills enough for your windowsill. But that’s not all. Eight-inch spires of tubular blossoms are a major facet of their gig. Again, think muscari. The color range is strictly carnival-golden yellow, orange, blue, purple, and pink, with multiple shades on some species. Speak to collector extraordinaire Russell Stafford of Odyssey Bulbs, and not only will he talk cinnabar, coral rose, silver, dusty pink, citron yellow, and lilac blue when waxing poetic about petal hues, but he’ll also include mention of the scintillating quality of the colors. In short, they shimmer. As if the species weren’t glam enough, at Keukenhof in Holland I caught a glimpse of the new hybrids, all with fat spires of blossoms: ‘Romand’ (canary yellow and chartreuse), ‘Rosabeth’ (hot pink and gold), and ‘Rupert’ (lilac). Fragrance is also occasionally a factor, in hints of citrus, cinnamon pinks, and witch hazel. Try taking a whiff of Lachenalia mathewsii or L. purpureocoerulea. In midwinter, it can’t get better than this.
Temperatures don’t need to be teeth chattering for an enjoyable show. I turn my thermostat down to a healthy, rosy-cheeked 53°F at bedtime. Beyond the big chill, good light and drainage are crucial for lachenalias’ comfort. I grow mine in shallow terra-cotta pans in a fertile, well-drained potting soil.
They wilt easily when in full flower-one neglected watering can curtail the performance. But keep abreast of their thirst and several galvanizing weeks will be in store.
Now is the time to get them going. My friend Rob Girard enjoys glowing success planting seeds obtained from the Kirsten-borsch National Botanical Garden in South Africa. He sows them in autumn, covering them with a tissue-thin layer of coarse quartz sand and placing the pots under fluorescent lights at a temperature of 60-70°F. He’s the patient type—seeds sown in 2003 blossomed three years later. For more immediate gratification, go the bulb route, potting them in autumn just below the soil surface.
The beauty of lachenalias is that the bulbs bow out in summer, just when you need to turn attention elsewhere. I leave mine potted but dry (Stafford cautions against unpotting the bulbs for any protracted period of time) until autumn. Then they enjoy the jumpstart of a few showers outdoors (guarding against any frost—they’re USDA Zone 9) and then take the brightest position I can muster inside. I place them where company can get an eyeful when they first breeze through the front door, and the collection never fails to stir envy. They’re cool.
This varied genus is perfect for those who think that indoor gardening should be just as artistic as the outdoor landscape. The lilac blue flowers of Lachenalia mutabilis (above) provide the perfect complement to orange bloomers, such as L abides var. aurea (right) or the recent yellow cultivar L ‘Romand’ (top). Sources, page 59.