On Gardening: Heirloom bulb Crocosmia adds vibrant summer color

January 18, 2016

The old-fashioned crocosmia has numerous garden applications from the cottage, to the tropical and eve as a partner to white hydrangeas.

Now is the time to shop for those summer blooming bulbs like the Crocosmia or Monbretia. Often we as garden writers are guilty of writing about what is currently in bloom. In the case of summer blooming bulbs this would mean you probably wont be able to buy them for several months. We all have trouble enough with the grocery list much less a plant that someone wrote about 9 months ago.  

This plant is native to South Africa and is an old-time favorite in the southern United States. When I lived in an old house built in the late 1800s in Mississippi, this was one of the delights that popped up in several places. Despite its heirloom status, it is always showing up in bulb catalogues.

The foliage is sword like with flowers borne on stems 15- to 24-inches long and bloom for a really long period of time. Typically, the flower stems branch and curve slightly, baring two rows of buds. You can tell they are in the Iris family and have resemblances to both the gladiola and the Iris domestica, also called blackberry lily.

Its name comes from the Greek words "krokos" meaning saffron and "osme" meaning smell, referring to the saffron aroma the dried flowers give off when immersed in water. There are choices in reds, yellows and oranges and two-tones as well as actual species.

If you think you will have a devil of the time remembering this plant, keep that in mind and shop for the variety Lucifer known for its fiery red color. An old variety, Emily McKenzie, has orange flowers and a red throat. If you like bi-colored selections, look also for the orange and yellow Bressingham Beacon or the red and yellow Venus.

These plants are perfect for the tropical garden. I have had some Crocosmia intermingled with tall monkey grass, or liriope. But my favorite is to have them planted among banana trees. While the banana stalks or pseudostems are neat as accents, the added flowers of the Crocosmia make a unique display at the base. The dappled shade provided by the banana leaves seems ideal.

One of the prettiest displays that I have seen took a lot of courage to try and the gardeners probably should be given some sort of award. The combination planting had orange and red Crocosmia combined with the bright blue of the Lily of the Nile. Here at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden we have them planted with white hydrangeas.

Most of my friends who grow Crocosmia think of it as a perennial, perfect for the cottage garden where it will be combined with daylilies or salvias. The yellow selections partner well with purple coneflowers and of course its relative the blackberry lily.

Crocosmias are also great as cut flowers used with grasses, zinnias or gingers. Condition them with warm 100-degree water before placing in the vase. Another oddity about this plant is that cut-flower marketers sell the Crocosmia not only as a cut flower but also sell it loaded with bright green seedpods that are very effective in the vase.

The Crocosmia is cold hardy from zones 6-10 and is best planted in the spring before the weather gets flaming hot. This sets up well for this time of the year as you no doubt have catalogues pouring in to your home. Be bold and plant a dozen in your drift or sweep.

Its not always the new plant that makes the garden, but sometimes its new uses for old heirlooms. Try some Crocosmia this year and see if you agree.



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