Fill your garden with
tough-as-nails heirloom bulbs

April 8, 2011

by Beth Ellis , Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
The dark pink Crinum Ellen Bosanquet can bloom several times during warm months and particularly with good rains. It is a strong bloomer that can be planted during the heat of summer if supplemented with water.
The all-white album crinum towers over the flower bed with 3- to 4-foot tall scapes, topped by a ring of nodding, trumpet-like blooms.
Look for St. Joseph's lilies in late spring with 2-foot tall scapes and white-tinged red petals. Attractive foliage can be well maintained with occasional watering throughout the year. It can be planted most anytime in warm months.
The spring blooming white flags iris, also known as cemetery whites, are some of the oldest and toughest irises around. They are drought tolerant and can be planted anytime during warm months, as long as watered if planted during dry summer heat.
The parrot gladiolus is an old time late-spring bloomer.  Like its Byzantine "corn flags" counterpart, these parrot glads require little care, but are more showy when regularly given water and fertilizer.
The spring blooming Byzantine gladiolus, around since acient times, multiplies well when divided, after the foliage has faded in May.  Look for the "real" heirloom plant (G. byzantinus) as there is an imposter (G. communis) marketed under the same common name.
Nothing communicates "Southern Charm" better than a garden filled with the blooms of cherished heirloom bulbs. OK, I'll admit right now that lots of what we Southerners call heirloom "bulbs" also includes corms, tubers and rhizomes, but for our purposes, it really doesn't matter much. We also tend to call anything that remotely looks like a lily, a lily, even if it is not. But again, what's in a name? We collect and preserve these beauties because whether passed from friend to friend, from grandparent to grandchild, or scavenged from the side of the road, they are as tough as they are lovely.


Heirloom bulbs are tough as nails. They can be found happily growing in neglected cemeteries, long abandoned gardens and in fields and along roadsides where old homes once stood. Most are extremely heat and drought tolerant, like full sun, to part shade and are not picky about soil - although if push comes to shove, they tend to prefer it well drained.

Transplanting is easy - just sink them to their previous depth in prepared soil and water regularly, but not excessively, until they are established. After establishment, fertilize and water occasionally. Most will take a year or so to resume blooming, but after that, they'll put on a good show, year in and year out.

Thin heirlooms every couple of years, and pass the new bulbs along to family, friends and neighbors because many of these old timers are no longer available from modern nurseries.


Crinums - No one can dispute that when it comes to old Southern garden plants, crinums are Queen. Eye catching, sprawling and sometimes ungainly, these flowering bulbs are so tough that Dr. Bill Welch, Texas AgriLife Extension Service Horticulturist, jokingly says, "None have ever died." There are several varieties ranging from the all-white album to the dark pink Ellen Bosanquet, with a whole range of striped or solid-toned, pink beauties in between. Surrounded by large clumps of strap-like foliage, the 3- to 4-foot tall scapes are topped by a ring of nodding trumpet shaped blooms. Most varieties bloom several times during warm months (especially after good rains) and are tough enough to be planted during the heat of summer if supplemented with water. Ideal division time is late winter or early spring.

Amaryllis - Perhaps the most endearing Southern amaryllis is the beautiful St. Joseph's lily. Dating to the 1790s, it is the first, and still most vigorous, amaryllis hybrid. St. Joseph's lilies send up 2-foot-tall scapes topped by large, fragrant white-tinged red petals in late spring. The attractive foliage is maintained throughout the year, with its appearance improved by occasional watering. Oxblood lilies are another old standby. Twelve-inch tall scapes appear in early fall surmounted by multiple deep red, medium-sized trumpet blooms. The foliage appears after blooming, lasts through the winter and spring, and disappears in summer. Both St. Joseph's and oxblood lilies can be planted anytime in warm months. Exposure to winter sun and some shade during the worst summer heat will improve blooming.

Irises - Spring blooming white flags (Iris albicans), also known as "cemetery whites" and their blue flag variants, are some of the oldest and toughest irises around. They take drought and can be planted anytime during warm months, but be sure to water them if planting during summer heat. Butterfly iris or fortnight lilies (Moraea iridioides) produce blue-tinged white flowers, and will tolerate some drought but do best with regular care. The name "fortnight" arises from the plant's tendency to bloom at roughly two week intervals, spring through fall. Some of the Louisiana irises will grow here too, but most need lots of water.

Gladiolus - Also known as corn flags, spring blooming byzantine gladiolus have been around since ancient times. Plant these magenta beauties during fall months. The corms multiply well with division after the foliage has faded in May. Take care to obtain the "real" heirloom plant (G. byzantinus) as there is an imposter (G. communis) marketed under the same common name. Parrot gladiolus is another old time late-spring blooming favorite. Divide this vivid orange/yellow bloomer in late summer after the foliage has faded. Like corn flags, parrot glads do not require much care, but they are much prettier if regularly given water and fertilizer.


Don't let the limited number of heirloom bulbs discussed above fool you. There are many more species and varieties out there, lurking in rural or not so rural byways. Many have no "official" names because they are the products of hobbyists or are natural crosses. Others have lost their names to time. Regardless, these old treasures are so hearty and strong, they have lasted for decades - if not centuries - passed from hand to hand by enthusiastic gardeners.

So, go ahead and give these beauties a try. Get them from family, friends, neighbors, nurseries or via the Internet from Web friends, eBay or specialist growers. Give them a modicum of care and these old lovelies will beautify your yard for decades to come.

Ogden, Scott
2007 Garden Bulbs for the South, second edition. Timber Press Inc. Portland, Ore. ISBN 978-0-88192-813-6.

Wiesinger, Chris
2010 Heirloom Bulbs for Today. Bright Sky Press. Houston. ISBN 978-1-933979-95-3.

Welch, William C. & Grant, Greg
1995 The Southern Heirloom Garden. Taylor Publishing Company. Dallas. ISBN 0-87833-877-2.

Bender, Steve & Rushing, Felder
1993 Passalong Plants. Univ. of North Carolina Press. N.C. ISBN 0-8078-2096-2


"Hardy Plants for Butterflies and Hummingbirds," presented by Victoria County Master Gardener Carmen Price
Noon-1 p.m. Monday
Pattie Dodson Health Center, 2805 N. Navarro, Victoria
Free to the public
Bring your lunch and drink
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or, or comment on this column at