Neil Sperry

These plants’ bloom times are short but oh-so-sweet

Bath pinks
Bath pinks Special to the Star-Telegram

We’ve been seeing some fall-flowering plants that have been especially gorgeous recently, and it made me realize that you could stack a whole year full of these short-term beauties into a landscape and cover most of the growing season. Plants that bloom for only a couple of weeks, then give way to others.

Here is the list of my favorites. I wish these plants would bloom longer.

Tulipa praecox, perennial tulips: I see these in older, often abandoned, landscapes around North and East Texas. They’re back under trees where grass won’t grow to compete. They’re usually in drifts, more like a scattering of wildflowers — certainly not in the formal bed-edging rows you see with the bigger hybrid tulips.

But these foot-tall red beauties reward us by returning for more blooms each spring. And they multiply.

But you won’t find them in nurseries. Find a friend who has them and ask for a few bulbs.

Louisiana phlox: Most people know thrift. This is its tame little sister. It has finer, lower-growing stems and foliage, and its flowers, instead of being hot, boisterous pink, are soft lavender. It grows well in partial shade, and it’s actually a pretty little ground cover when it’s not blooming.

It’s commonly sold in nurseries in spring, but people too often reach for the bright flowers of the thrift instead. It flowers in March.

Bath’s pinks: Carnations don’t come to mind when you talk about dependable spring perennials for Texas, but this one is a top-line dandy. Named “pinks” because their flower petals look like they’ve been trimmed with pinking shears, these plants grow to be 10 or 12 inches tall when in bloom in April. And the plant’s clumps of foliage in fall are nothing short of handsome.

Texas Gold columbine: This plant is a love. It’s a short-lived perennial flower that not only comes back for a few years, but also reseeds freely if you’ll leave the plants standing for a few extra weeks after they bloom in April.

It grows to 18 to 24 inches tall, and it’s a native Texan, from springs in the arid Big Bend Country of West Texas. It requires shade and highly organic, moist soil.

Byzantine glads: Growing only half the size and height of florist glads, these plants produce strong maroon spires of blossoms each April. Unlike wimpy hybrid glads, the clumps get bigger and bigger over the decades.

These glads are truly perennial, and make a dramatic statement toward their corner of your perennial bed. Leaves die down soon after the plants finish blooming, so you’ll need to remember where they are in the off-season.

Butterfly weed: If Byzantine glads are our token maroon for Aggieland, butterfly weed will make the Longhorns happy. These flowers are a glorious shade of beautiful orange. They’re borne above basketball-sized clumps of foliage.

This plant is actually a native East Texas perennial milkweed. It’s difficult to find in nurseries and, because of its tuberous root, it’s somewhat hard to get established. Once in place, however, it will be with you for decades.

St. Joseph’s lily: I called this plant “hardy amaryllis” until a few years ago. I began to realize that no one else was singing that song along with me, so I’ve tried to change over. So now I’ll just say that this is the plant that looks like an amaryllis: bright red, trumpet-shaped flowers atop glossy green, strap-shaped leaves each April.

It’s another pass-along plant. Many gardeners grow it, so you ought to be able to mooch one from someone. For whatever reason, you just don’t see it in nurseries. It really deserves to be there.

Fall aster: Jump ahead into the fall. You don’t even notice this fine-leafed little plant most of the season. Until it blooms, it’s hardly more visible than a puff of gnats in the garden. But when those lavender-blue blooms start opening in September and October, it’s an instant hero plant.

Pinch its stems back by about half in mid-May to keep the plants compact. Otherwise, stand back and prepare to be dazzled. It grows to 24 inches in bloom.

Mexican bush sage: We have enough salvias to float a boat now. Most of them, however, do most of their flowering in spring and summer. This old friend is one of the boldest, growing to 3 to 4 feet tall.

It should be kept shorter and more compact by pinching out the growing tips in mid-May each year. It produces spikes of purple, lavender and white blooms in the fall. It’s the perfect complement to more common fall perennials like mums.

Oxblood lilies: Their tiny bulbs sit almost MIA in the soil from the time their leaves die down in spring until the wiry little stems pop out of the soil in September.

Also called schoolhouse lilies (because they bloom about the time school used to resume) and hurricane lilies (same sort of reasoning), they’re 12 inches tall in flower, and will often produce multiple rounds of blooms each season.

Fall crocus, aka lilies-of-the-field: I see these most commonly in cemeteries and old neighborhoods, where someone’s great-grandmother probably planted them. I see them least commonly in nurseries, although there are online sources. Search for them there by their scientific name: Sternbergia lutea.

They’re planted from small bulbs, and they’ll come back for decades with absolutely no care. Their blooms are bright, buttery yellow. The plants’ mature height in bloom is a compact 5 or 6 inches.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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