Tender Bulbs in a Cold Climate

The process was trial and error in the beginning, but I finally got what I needed. I use a heater during cold weather and a fan during the winter to take out the warmer air on sunny days. I installed two thermostats; one for heating and one for cooling. I heat the greenhouse to between 41°F and 50°F (5-10°C). When it reaches approximately 54°F (12°C) in the winter the fan turns on to bring in cooler air. I also have two fans on the floor of the greenhouse to circulate air continuously. As anyone with a greenhouse can attest, I worry about losing power in winter and my collection perishing. This happens at least once each winter, but luckily I’ve always been able to resolve it in time to save my plants. Since the pandemic began I’ve been taking advantage of working from home, doting on my plants even more, and nipping any potential disaster in the bud.
The greenhouse faces south to collect the most light possible, particularly during the winter. I have a bit of whitewash over the polycarbonate panels to provide some shade. In the summer months, when many of my plants are dormant, I take some of them out of the greenhouse and place them on my stairs as well as amongst the troughs and other containers in the garden. The smaller pots tend to stay in the greenhouse. Because I have the whitewash it gives slight shade but still enough sun to ripen the bulbs. Most of my bulbs require a hot summer dry baking which I provide by ferrying them back into the greenhouse or garage when it rains. This can be tedious but necessary to keep them dry. For soil I use a well-drained mix of compost, grit, and coarse sand equal parts, sometimes making tweaks by adding pumice depending on the species grown. I fertilize with tomato fertilizer as I find this to be an excellent bulb fertilizer.
Once I got the greenhouse in place and figured out the heating and cooling, I could, at last, indulge my passion for growing bulbs and other plants under glass that are tender, fussy, and require controlled conditions. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where we have a continental climate marked by cold winters and hot, humid summers. I have always been drawn to bulbs since I was a child and began collecting and importing at age 14, something which has never changed.
What I love about bulbs is that they bloom in all seasons and most (but not all) have a dormant period. I grow bulbs from all over the world with a particular focus on bulbs from South Africa and the families Amaryllidaceae and Iridaceae.

Many years ago, with permission, I collected the seeds of Boophone disticha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. It is now nine years old and has beautiful glaucous undulating foliage. It has not yet bloomed and usually takes anywhere from 10-12 years to flower from seed. I am aware of other growers who have flowered it in less time; however, they live in warmer climates where it can be planted in the ground. Another species I collected seed of is Cyrtanthus smithiae. This elegant spiral-leaved species flowers in the summer and is also distributed throughout the Eastern Cape. Strumaria prolifera, called the cape snowflake in South Africa, has striking white campanulate blooms. It is found in the Northern Cape and flowers in late fall. Nerine laticoma subsp. huttoniae flowers in late summer to early fall and has a large umbel of pink flowers. It is one of my favorite Nerine species, reminiscent of the genus Brunsvigia which also comes from the Eastern Cape.
The genus Brunsvigia is bold and spectacular with a widespread distribution in southern Africa. Brunsvigia bosmaniae is a stunner with a huge umbel of bubblegum pink, scented flowers in late summer. In Nieuwoudtville, South Africa, it is a spectacle to behold when they flower en masse. Several different bee species here in the Northern Hemisphere are drawn in to its scent. My bulb is approximately 12 years old. Another species, Brunsvigia namaquana, the smallest in the genus, also flowers in late summer and has unique prostrate leaves covered in bristles. It is native to the quartzite and granite outcrops of Namaqualand. It flowered for the first time last year and I’m hoping for a repeat performance. Brunsvigia species can be fickle about flowering and do not necessarily do so each year.
Moving away from southern Africa we have Scadoxus cyrtanthiflorus. This beautiful and highly sought-after species is endemic to the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its long green-and-red tubular flowers resemble some species in the genus Cyrtanthus, hence its specific epithet. It blooms in early autumn.
South American amaryllids are represented in my collection by the fragrant flowers of Leucocoryne vittata from Chile and Phaedranassa dubia with its long red and green tubular flowers native to Colombia and Ecuador.
A final amaryllid in the collection is Narcissus viridiflorus, an unusual fragrant species that has green, night-blooming flowers in the fall. This gem comes from southern Spain and Morocco.
The genus Iris has a special fond spot in my heart, particularly those from section Oncocyclus due to their large flower to leaf-size ratio, mesmerizing colors and patterns. Iris kirkwoodiae has heavily marked falls and a chocolate colored signal patch. This species comes from Turkey and Syria and flowers in late May. Iris paradoxa forma choschab is a unique form from eastern Anatolia and northwestern Iran with small blackish purple falls, a brown beard, and exquisite purple venation. Iris acutiloba subsp. lineolata comes from Turkey, Iran, and parts of central Asia and blooms in early June. Iris nicolai from central Asia is a Juno and is considered a color form of Iris rosenbachiana. It blooms in January and has deep violet falls with a bright orange crest.
Southern Africa has no shortage of Irids. Lapeirousia oreogena from the Northern Cape has striking purple flowers in February with white and blackish markings in the center.
Romulea hantamensis is endemic to the dolerite flats of Hantamsberg, South Africa. This stunning species blooms in February with magenta flowers marked at the petal edges with crimson. Gladiolus equitans comes from Namaqualand, South Africa, and has beautiful sweetly scented orange flowers. The lower petals have greenish to yellowish markings. It blooms in early April. Sparaxis elegans, endemic to the Bokkeveld Plateau, South Africa, is the most beautiful in the genus. The flowers are salmon or white, though the white form is rarer. There is a purple circle at the base of the flower which is dotted with yellow and black markings. Flowering in February, the irresistible Geissorhiza monanthos from the western Cape has rich purple flowers with a white throat surrounded by crimson. The diminutive Syringodea longituba is a rare gem found in Namaqualand. It is called the cape crocus but is not a crocus. Their only affinity is that they belong to the same family. They have beautiful purple cup-shaped flowers with twisted leaves.

I’m also very interested in Allium species, particularly those from Iran and Turkey. Allium materculae is a rarely grown species with a scented pink umbel and beautiful glaucous leaves. Allium shelkovnikovii is another rarity coming from northwestern Iran with flowers of a metallic pink sheen. Both flower in April. Allium callimischon subsp. haemostictum is a real treat with its white flowers marked with red dots on the tepals blooming on dead-looking stalks in early fall. It’s found in Crete and Turkey.
Massonia hirsuta (Asparagaceae) is a very fragrant species with a scent reminiscent of laundry detergent but more pleasant. It blooms in November and comes from the Eastern Cape. Daubenya aurea, also from the same family has both yellow and red flowers. The red flowers are more common in habitat. It flowers in February and comes from the Roggeveld Mountains in the Northern Cape.
Colchicum kesselringii (Colchicaceae) is found in central Asia. It has white flowers with a purple stripe on the back of the petals. The color of this stripe varies in habitat from lighter to darker purple. Colchicum hungaricum ‘Valentine’ is so named because it usually blooms around Valentine’s Day. Both of these colchicums start blooming in late January for me.

Having bulbs flowering in fall and winter brightens up the dreariest of days. This is just a smattering of the bulbs I grow. I am always changing things up and trying new genera. Collecting is an insatiable habit even when you tell yourself you have no more space.

You can see more of Erika’s bulbs (and other plants) on her instagram: