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Here are bulbs that are excellent for a shade garden

Here are bulbs that are excellent for a shade garden

While the vast majority of bulbs are meant for sunny locations, some are excellent candidates for the shade garden. Walking in my neighborhood the other day, I spotted the flowers of two bulb species that are durable and guaranteed to spread in shady locations.

The first shade lover I spotted was Natal or bush lily (Clivia miniata). Its silky, pastel orange to vivid reddish orange trumpet blooms are breathtaking in late winter and early spring. They form in clusters with as many as ten flowers per cluster. Leaves are broad straps of green that provide ocular pleasure on their own after flowers have faded. Yellow clivias are also occasionally seen. Spherical red fruits form where flowers have been and these contain seeds that germinate readily enough. The problem is that Clivia grows so slowly from seed that you will have to wait five years until flowers develop. For this reason, it is wiser to plant grown specimens. You can also acquire Clivia bulbs which are apt to give you flowers within the first year of being planted. One source for Clivia bulbs is Terra Ceia Farms (terraceiafarms.com), where you can acquire three bulbs for around twenty dollars.

The only enemy of Clivia is too much love. Plants should not be watered in winter and sprinklers kept on during that season can bring about their death. They also crave fast-draining soil. As indoor plants, they grow best in an orchid mix and, in the manner of orchids, thrive when their roots are exposed. This is not surprising since Clivia, like orchids, is epiphytic — that is, it is found growing in trees where one branch forks off from another.

The other flowering bulb for shade I noticed on my walk was summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum), a misnomer since it blooms in every season except summer. Flowers are nodding, scalloped bells or lampshades with a green spot on the tip of each petal. This is one of the toughest bulb plants as it can grow in dry or wet soil and spreads quickly in the garden bed. 

And now we come to Lenten rose or Hellebore (Helleborus orientalis) which, unfortunately, I did not encounter on my walk but wish I had. Hellebore is perfectly content growing in a shade garden. It does not grow from a bulb but has a clumping growth habit and will spread slowly but surely throughout a garden area that is protected from hot sun.

The Lenten rose is highly decorative – if in a somewhat subtle way – yet durable plant that deserves more of our horticultural attention. Also known as hellebore (hell-uh-BORE), it belies its name since it is a heavenly addition to the garden and far from boring. It blooms for many months in winter and spring with flowers that are typically pale greenish white, but may also appear flushed with pink, burgundy or purple. 

Many varieties have blueish-green foliage with saw-toothed margins. Hellebores need excellent drainage so If your soil is heavy, amend it with plenty of compost before planting. Gypsum, probably the least expensive amendment for softening hard soil, will similarly improve drainage when it is dug into the ground. Although they need good drainage, hellebores are not drought-tolerant and require some moisture in their root zone throughout the year.

Two notes of caution regarding hellebores: First, all plant parts are poisonous; second, hellebores should not be moved during the first few years after planting. Established plants may be carefully divided and moved as long as you are willing to wait several years for the divided clumps to re-establish and re-bloom. Hellebore is one of the most undeservedly neglected plants and I do not recall ever seeing it in a nursery, although it is readily ordered from Hellebore growers with a presence on the Internet. The mail-order nursery with the greatest selection of Hellebores, in addition to many, many exotic plant species that neither you nor I have ever encountered, is Sunshine Farm and Gardens (sunfarm.com).

Hellebores belong to the buttercup family (Ranunculus), a group noted for the diversity of its foliage, which is always a pleasure to behold. Meadow rue (Thalictrum polycarpum) is a California native buttercup for the shade garden that has soft, intricately-laced leaves atop succulent stems that rise up from underground. Anemone or windflower (Anemone coronaria), another type of buttercup, grows from a tuber and is flowering now in red, white and blue. The fall-blooming Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida), which sends up four-foot stems topped with white or pink blooms, is another neglected, but eminently suitable perennial for the shade garden. Finally, there are Ranunuculus corms themselves, which send up lacy foliage and tight turban-shaped flowers in white, yellow, orange, red, and pink.

Other plants that are compatible with hellebores include ferns of every description, low-growing palms and mahonias. Mahonia, or Oregon grape, is a sturdy grower that is also noted for saw-toothed foliage. Native to California, mahonia has edible blue fruit that is attractive to birds and other wildlife. Keep in mind that these plants will not grow in deep shade but do well grown under deciduous trees. 

Japanese maples are often seen growing in the proximity of hellebores due to their similar light requirements. A Japanese maple variety called Coral Bark (Acer palmatum var. Sango-kaku) is special. In addition to its salmon- to red-colored bark which, after its leaves have fallen, glimmers brightly in winter and spring before leafing out, Coral Bark can take more sun than the average Japanese maple. It is a fine specimen tree for light shade, partial sun or container gardens.

California native of the week: Creeping sage (Salvia Gracias) is a ground cover that grows six inches to two feet tall and is in full bloom from now until summer. Flowers are blue, foliage is gray and aromatic when crushed. In one year, creeping sage may cover up to eight feet of ground in every direction and single plants may spread to more than 30 feet with the passage of time. Yet where conditions for growth are limited, it may take much longer to reach that size. Still, it is a tough plant that will live for four decades under virtually any conditions. It will grow in rocky or sandy soil where other sages struggle and is seemingly impervious to heat and drought.

If you have bulb plants – or any other plants, for that matter – that you are proud of growing in the shade, please send your success story to joshua@perfectplants.com. Your questions and comments as well as gardening tips or garden problems are always welcome.

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