Gardening with California Native Bulbs

Triteleia ixiodes 'Starlight' - Pretty Face in Town Mouse garden

Town Mouse is going to be posting about her garden bulbs so first we thought it would be good to share some general info about growing native California bulbs. Some of this material was published in an article I wrote for the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Growing tips:
California native bulbs are easier to grow in containers than in the ground -- both because bulbs are tasty food for burrowing critters and slugs, and because the bulbs must be kept dry when dormant in summer. Most bulbs like to be in full sun to part shade.

You can plant (or replant) bulbs in the fall, at a depth of three times the length or width of the bulb, whichever is greater. Or - generally three to six inches. Root end down!

A recommended potting mix is: 40% potting soil, 40% sand, 20% loam. Use pots that are at least eight inches deep.

Allow to dry between watering (as needed only) during the wet season, and keep dry during the dry summer season.

Fairy lanterns, Calochortus albus - gorgeous! Unpredictable in the garden.

It’s also useful to know that native bulbs do not like to grow among tall plants. In the vast wild-flower meadows of former days, they evolved along with grazing herds of antelope and elk that kept the vegetation low.

(Native people also used controlled burns to promote the growth of edible bulbs and for other reasons to do with support of their lifestyle (as we would say today). Because of native peoples' land management techniques, California had a lot more flower meadow/prairie landscapes than we see today, and they were rich with interesting and diverse life. Those prairies have been steadily closing in with shrubs and woodlands (or being converted to ag. uses). But that's another story.)

One flower in an umbel of Fremont's Star Lily, Toxicoscordion fremontii - they grow in the chaparral here, and also are common in our coastal prairies such as those near the UC Santa Cruz campus.

After blooming and seed set - gather seeds for sharing, and remove dried stalks for appearance sake. Bulbs in the ground disappear while dormant in the dry season, so keep that in mind when designing your garden plantings.

One bulb that is fairly easy to grow in the garden, though, is Meadow onion (Allium unifolium),

Meadow onion, Allium unifolium, starting to go to seed (sorry this photo has the wrong file name btw)

Meadow onion is not so readily eaten by animals, though gophers may snack on it, and it will spread -- if not irrigated in summer. Plant in sun to part shade in lean soil.

Soap Plant - usually pollinated by moths in the evening
Soap root plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), is another easy-to-grow bulb that can survive in the ground. Its tall spikes of small white flowers bloom from May to August and open in the late afternoon for pollination by moths. Soap root bulbs were used by native Americans to make brushes (using the fibers surrounding the bulb), for soap, and also to stun fish.

Ithuriel's spear, Triteleia laxa - kind of an odd color, maybe to do with the camera

Other native bulbs you can try in containers include these:  

  • Elegant brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
  • Blue dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum (ex. D. pulchellum) - blue. I had a few of these pop up unexpectedly in my garden this year! Why? I don't know!
  • Ookow, Dichelostemma congestum, bluish/purple - stalks can be three feet tall.White triteleia, Triteleia hyacinthina
  • Pretty face, Triteleia ixioides, a lovely creamy color (see first photo)
  • Ithuriel's spear, Triteleia laxa,  generally blue/violet
  • Marsh Triteleia (also known as long-rayed broodier) Triteleia peduncularis
  • Other Calochortus genus bulbs - can be tricky but are very showy
Calochortus blooming in Town Mouse garden - maybe Ms T Mouse can let us know which species?

I've also grown local native bulbs: Fremont's Star Lily,  Toxicoscordon fremontii,  Fairy Lanterns, and (through sheer luck) Fritillaria affinis, checker lily

Checker lily, Fritillaria affinis, in a Country Mouse paw!
Wishing you fun with native bulbs! Through spring you can enjoy their blooms - and plan for more plantings in the fall.

CNPS Grow Natives blog post on bulbs
Pacific Bulb Society - pages on each species are especially helpful.

You can also use our blog label "bulbs" to find more of our posts.


Terra said…
Nice info on California bulbs. I grow most of my bulbs in containers, as you mention, to keep them safe from gophers and to have good drainage.
Brent said…
You've had better success than I with your Triteleia ixiodes 'Starlight', than I have had this year with Bloomeria crocea. Have you found that it gets more florific as it matures?
Jason said…
Beautiful, especially the Triteleias. With such lovely natives who needs tulips?
Country Mouse said…
Indeed they are lovely - and I saw a photo of a stunning Calochortus albus last night at the CNPS meeting - it's deep pink, almost maroon. It occurs naturally south of here. Maybe Ms Town will post her experiences of Starlight - I know she's preparing a bulb post to share.
Thanks as ever for your comments, they are truly appreciated.