Buying Bulbs in October for Southern California Gardens

Written by Susan B.

The mild weather we experience here in Southern California makes it impossible for some bulbs to benefit from cold temperatures while they are in the ground. But there are ways we can simulate those conditions so we can grow traditional spring-blooming bulbs like tulips. But we can also grow flowering bulbs that come from the Mediterranean and other temperate climate regions. We’re going to give you all the information you need to have so you can plant spring-blooming bulbs at the proper time. 

All bulbs are perennial plants native to areas where there is at least one season that is not entirely conducive to their growth. That is the time during which the bulbs go dormant and use that dormancy to gather nutrients and store energy that the plants will need to jump-start their growth once ideal growing conditions return.

Traditional (Classic) Bulbs

Classic bulbs like crocuses, hyacinths, tulips, and others need to undergo a period of pre-chilling. To do that, you will need to place them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator, where the temperature is between 35 to 45 degrees. They need to chill there for a minimum of six weeks. Protect the bulbs by keeping them away from ripening fruit in your crisper. As the fruit ripens, it releases ethylene gasses, and the gas can harm the bulbs (just as it does with other produce that is kept near it in the crisper drawer.) After the six-to-eight week cooling period, you can plant the bulbs. 

The problem with cold climate bulbs is that they’ll only bloom the first spring after you plant them, although it is conceivable that they might bloom again if you dig them up after they bloom, clean them, and chill them for another six to 8 weeks before planting them for the second time. That’s a lot of work to go through – especially when there isn’t any assurance that you’d be successful after replanting them. 

Bulbs That Are Especially Well Suited to Growing in Southern California

The bulbs that are best suited to growth in our Southern California area are native to regions in the Mediterranean basin and the Cape Province area (and other areas) in South Africa. These bulbs and corms are ideal for dry climates like ours. 

One benefit of Mediterranean and South African native bulbs is that they have long stems on the top of which are multiple flower clusters. Unlike cold climate bulbs, the flowers open gradually, so they last much longer. Plant them in places where they won’t be drowned by irrigation during the summer months. For the optimal impact, plant them in clumps so that you get a dramatic effect of clusters of flower blooms. 

Some examples of bulbs that come from the Mediterranean and the Middle East include: 

  • Anemone
  • Crocus
  • Cyclamen
  • Daffodil
  • Hyacinth
  • Iris
  • Lily
  • Tulip

Some examples of native South African bulbs include: 

  • Agapanthus (Lily-of-the-Nile)
  • Amaryllisiana (Baboon Flower)
  • Bab
  • Crinum
  • Crocosmia
  • Freesia
  • Gladiolus 
  • Ixia

Ideally Suited Bulbs and Corms for Southern California 

Babiana – Babiana rubrocyanea 

In South Africa, Babiana is often referred to as a baboon flower because the primates eat the corms. Babiana rubrocyanea gets its name from the fact that flowers are multi-colored — with both a reddish magenta and bluish-cyan color in each flower.  This spring-blooming flowering plant has cultivars that produce flowers that can be blue, lavender, or white. 

Plant it at the entry to the front of your property, or at the entry gate to your garden. You can also plant it in between pavers. Baboon flower is considered an extra tough flower for which the likelihood of failure in growing it is slim. 

Eremurus 

Eremurus is native to Asia. Its common names include Foxtail Lily and Desert Candle. It produces flower spikes that rise to 4-to-5 feet tall. ‘Cleopatra’ is a cultivar that has flowers that are the color of orange sherbet. Shelford hybrids produce flowers that come in a mixture of pastel colors. 

Freesia 

Freesia, one of our all-time favorites, is a native of South Africa. It comes in a broad range of flower colors. Flower stems reach a height of 18-inches, and there are multiple flowers along each branch. The flowers produce a delightful fragrance that you and your family can enjoy when you spend time outdoors in areas near the flowers. It works well as an edging plant in borders. New cultivars come in shades of blue and in bi-colored combinations. 

Giant White Squill (Urginea Martima

Giant White Squill is native to the Mediterranean. It is considered a monster because each bulb can weigh between six and eight pounds. Giant White Squill is unusual because the foliage emerges long before the buds appear, which occurs in September. The leaves remain on plants from November to April. Then they die back to allow the enormous 6-foot tall flower spikes to emerge in September. The plant produces flowers that start opening from the top, and they continue to open, moving downward. Flowers open gradually over the course of about a month. 

‘Golden Dawn’ Narcissus 

‘Golden Dawn’ narcissus is a tazetta hybrid. It belongs to a group of narcissus cultivars that are ideally suited to growth in Southern California. Flowers are yellow, but they have dark-gold-colored cups. Every stem has multiple blooms at the top. ‘Golden Dawn’ narcissus emits a sweet fragrance, but it isn’t as intense as the smell that paperwhites emit. 

Homerias 

Homeria flowers bloom for at least a month — if not longer. They produce flowers that are shades of orange or muted yellow. Blossoms emerge from 2-foot long branching stems. 

Saffron Crocus (Crocus sativus)

Saffron Crocus is not like the classic cold-weather crocus that blooms in spring. This variety (Crocus sativus) blooms during the fall. Plant it in October, and you’ll be able to enjoy the flowers by Thanksgiving. This low-growing cultivar has lilac-colored flowers, but the stigmas are a vibrant orange-red color. And the stigmas are the source of the highly coveted food spice we know of as saffron. 

Spanish Bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica

As its name suggests, Spanish Bluebell is a native of Spain. It is sometimes used as a substitute for hyacinth. It produces blue flowers that emerge from thick, sturdy, 20-inch tall stems. The cultivar ‘Excelsior’ is especially popular because of its dark blue flowers. 

As you can see, we aren’t being deprived of anything in the way of spectacular flowering bulbs when we explain that cold-weather bulbs (the classic Dutch bulbs) aren’t well suited to growth in our area. We’ve highlighted some of the most beautiful, unusual, and fool-proof bulbs you can grow in our climate, and you won’t have to plant them every year. If you’re interested in purchasing and planting bulbs for your garden, call us or come into one of our stores to see what we have in stock. We’re always eager to help you enjoy your garden and landscape to the fullest possible extent. 

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