Autumn bulbs bring us joy and surprise in an unlikely season, and there are many lovely varieties to consider, says Graham Rice
This selection of delightful, mainly Award of Garden Merit-winning varieties will bring reliable colour to your garden for years to come. Numbers at the end of each entry detail plant height and RHS hardiness ratings. Plant them in late summer and you'll be rewarded with fresh new blooms just as many other plants start to fade into the mellow mistiness of autumn.
There are a number of fine crocus forms that flower in the autumn, but my favourite is a Greek species, Crocus goulimyi. When I first spotted it years ago in a pot in Wisley’s Alpine House, corms were hard to find. Now many specialists stock this and its white form, ‘Mani White’, and it’s also proving reliable outside in sun in a gritty raised bed.
The two-tone lilac flowers – the inner three petals slightly paler than the outer – are held on long tubes and open in November as the leaves emerge at the base. Although taking late autumn weather well, it has an appealingly delicate look. 12cm (5in). H6. AGM.
Long known as Leucojum autumnale, but so distinct that it demands a genus of its own, the autumn snowflake (Acis autumnalis) opens its white bells for many weeks in August and September as the grassy foliage fades away. Usually three bells open on each stem and there’s often a hazy red zone at the base of the flower coupled with red-tinted stems.
Best planted in sun, in humus-rich, but gritty and well-drained soil at the front of a raised bed, the bulbs usually increase well so at flowering time they make a crowded forest of wiry stems. They also do well in a deep pot of gritty compost. 15-22cm (6–9in). H5. AGM.
The Italian arum, Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’ is a bulb – well, a fat rhizome, really – that is exceptional in producing its new foliage in the autumn and maintaining its sparky display of white-veined leaves until late spring. Then it flowers, develops spikes of orange-red berries and the foliage fades away.
The arrowhead-shaped leaves are splendid both in the garden and cut for the house. I spotted them self sown at the foot of the beech hedges at Wisley and in my own garden they seem to self sow and thrive in all sorts of inhospitable corners. 35cm (14in). H6. AGM.
Naked boys and naked ladies
'Naked boys' was the altogether unexpected common name for colchicums, essential autumn bulbs. In Victorian times the name 'naked ladies' started to take over as, it seems, the Victorian gardeners found this more suitable and this is now the better-known common name.
Colchicum ‘Waterlily’ is a double flowered form and the proliferation of petals does, indeed, resemble a waterlily. Flowering in October, with a mass of flowers developing as each bulb slowly expands, the rosy lavender flowers are paler in the centre and are unexpectedly resilient in rain. After flowering, the long foliage develops and remains until June or July the following year. 15cm (6in). H5. AGM.
Crinum × powellii 'Album' is a lovely pure white hybrid between two South African species that grow wild in moist soil and in full sun. In our gardens, they appreciate better drainage than perhaps we anticipate but revel in sunshine. When happy, the plant produces showy umbels with up to a dozen 10cm (4in) scented, trumpet-shaped flowers over a long period from August to October.
The flowers have a lovely lily-like fragrance but to ensure their generous production, plant the bulbs with their necks above the soil. In colder parts of the country, an autumn mulch will help them through the winter. 80cm. H5.
Cyclamen hederifolium is the autumn-flowering cyclamen that many people recognise and I’ve been surprised at the many different situations in which it thrives. Its dainty but resilient, pink or white, backswept, sometimes scented flowers open from August and are followed by attractive, arrowhead-shaped foliage that persists through the winter and is often prettily marked in silver. Four different forms have been awarded the AGM.
I have seen it persisting in half sun in gravel for twenty years and self sown under a privet hedge as well as in the light, humus-rich soil it is normally thought to prefer. Ants will take the seed all over the garden. 7cm (3in). H5. AGM.
Once considered simply an autumn-flowering form of the familiar Galanthus nivalis, but now elevated to its own species and subspecies as G. reginae-olgae subsp. reginae-olgae, this is a reliable, tough and easy autumn bulb always admired for its unexpected October opening. More easily pronounced in English as Queen Olga's snowdrop.
Although growing wild in Greece it has been recorded as surviving winters as low as -17°C (1.4°F) undamaged so this is a certainly tough plant.
Happiest in deep soil in sun or part shade, it’s also fairly adaptable and fattens up into impressive clumps. I’ve found that a few blooms in a dainty autumn posy prompt high – if undeserved – accolades from non-gardeners. 15cm (6in). H5. AGM.
Stylish South African
Nerine bowdenii is a stylish and dependable bulb from South Africa that fits well into Mediterranean style gardens as it flowers in September and it sits well with greyish and glaucous foliage.
The clusters of up to a dozen flared and slightly frilly pink flowers open in a succession over many weeks at the top of upright stems. The bulbs are best planted with their tops peeping through well-drained soil in a sunny place. Plant about 15cm (6in) apart, leave undisturbed until the bulbs are crowded and feed as the leaves develop. 45cm (18in). H5. AGM.
Well, not really. With fat yellow goblets for many weeks from September, it’s understandable that this easy and prolific bulb has become known as the autumn or winter daffodil although Sternbergia lutea is not a Narcissus.
Its intense flowers open as the dark green leaves begin to emerge and in a sunny spot with well-drained, fertile soil the bulbs will soon multiply – although they dislike being too hot and baked in summer. It is more a case of avoiding wet conditions than choosing a dry site. Sometimes shy flowering, be sure to combine high fertility with sun and good drainage. 15cm (6in). H4. AGM.
Not so swampy
Known as the white rain lily, and also as the Peruvian swamp lily, these names indicate that Zephyranthes candida should be planted in a bog. Not in British gardens. And it’s related neither to crocuses or lilies, but is closer botanically to Amaryllis.
The white crocus-like blooms, sometimes with a few pink tints on the backs of the petals, open in August and September and are best grown in a sunny place in soil that provides the sometimes elusive combination of “moist but well-drained” soil.
Better in pots in a cold greenhouse in the iciest areas of the country. 20cm (8in). H3.