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Uncommon Summer Bulbs

Expand your gardening horizons with these summer bulbs.

By Susan Morgan

Move beyond your standard herbaceous perennials and take a look at these unusual bulbs for summer. In addition to just-plain looking good, bulbs are drought-tolerant; their underground storage organs can go dormant during hot, dry spells.

"Even if there's a lack of water or you accidentally mow them down, these plants will go dormant and come back up for you next year. You gotta love plants that thrive on abuse," says Tony Avent, owner of Plant Delights Nursery near Raleigh, N.C. So take another look at these plants that tolerate a bit of neglect but have a lot of potential in the landscape.

Note: The more technically accurate term for "bulb" is geophyte — a term that classifies this group into bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers. If the geophytes described below aren't hardy to your zone, dig and take inside for the winter.

A member of the Aroid family, the voodoo lily tops the list as a conversation-starter. Perhaps the most famous member of the Amorphophallus genus is the rare-blooming A. titanum whose giant, six-foot bloom emits a foul odor when it first opens (reminiscent of rotting flesh). When these tuberous plants start to bloom, bring the neighbors over to check them out--or smell them.

A. bulbifer offers a light pink flower that's certainly not as large as giant voodoo lily but is still a respectable foot-and-a-half tall. Its most interesting attribute is how it forms brown warts on the stems that, when removed, can be used to start new plants. Hardy to USDA Zones 7b to 9. According to Avent, another species, A. kiusianus, is cold-hardy into Maryland and produces a unique hot-pink and blue fruit spike. USDA Zones 7 to 10. A. konjac is another winter-hardy selection that flowers and multiplies easily so it can be shared with other gardeners. This one reaches four to five feet tall. USDA Zones 6 to 10.

For shade gardens, black Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum 'Black Jack') offers striking black foliage in combination with a black-and-white-striped spathe on its bloom. Plants bloom in mid-spring and reach one foot tall. USDA Zones 6 to 9.

Another black-foliaged treasure is Canna 'Australia'. Not your typical canna, its striking dark burgundy-black leaves are quite stunning, especially when paired with its scarlet-red blooms. It stands about five feet tall. Place it in the middle to back of a sunny border where it'll provide a nice structural accent. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

Want a specimen plant in your tropical garden that will be the envy of all your neighbors? Check out this elephant ear on steroids. Discovered growing in the wild in Thailand, Colocasia gigantea 'Thailand Giant Strain' has gardeners clamoring to get one. It produces giant-sized, five-foot leaves on eight- to nine-foot plants. According to Avent, its grayish-green leaves dwarfs a minivan. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

If you're looking for an elephant ear that's not as big on size but still huge on impact, consider the variegated Colocasia esculenta 'Coffee Cups'. 'Coffee Cups' has glossy purplish-black streaked leaves that are cupped. The leaves fill with water after a heavy downpour. It has purplish-black leaf veins and stems, much like C. esculenta 'Fontanesii', but with the unique variegation on the foliage. Plants reach six feet tall. USDA Zones 7b to 10.

'Yellow Splash' is another dramatic Colocasia with a lemon-lime twist. Variegated leaves look like they've been splashed with yellow paint, with some green leaves being "drenched" with yellow while others showing less obvious splotches. Plant size is four feet tall. USDA Zones 7b to 10. Both selections should be planted in a full-sun location with adequate moisture. Note: elephant ears prefer a moist to wet soil and are heavy feeders.

One of the summer-blooming garden stars is the dahlia, and now there are all sorts of unique and interesting selections. Dahlia 'Stars Lady' is a cactus-flowering type whose early-summer, soft-pink flowers resemble sea urchins. The tubers should be planted in full to partial sun in moist but well-draining soil. Plant size is about two feet tall. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

'Fantastico' (also called 'Impression Fantastico') is a spectacular small-sized dahlia with tri-colored flowers. Dark red flowers are accented by smaller red-white petals radiating from bright yellow centers. Plants also reach just under two feet tall. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

Looking for a dahlia with black foliage? According to bulb expert Brent Heath (co-owner of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va.), 'Chic' (pronounced "sheek") is "a miniature plant with major impact." Its "absolute black" foliage is an excellent contrast with its golden yellow flowers in summer. Plant size is about 10 to 15 inches tall. USDA Zones 8 to 10.

At first glance, decorative dahlia 'Freak of Nature' doesn't appear to look any bit as unusual as its name would suggest. However, when you realize that the variation in flower color is not caused by a mixed planting of several tubers but rather that all this comes from one tuber, then you have your answer as to how this dahlia got its name. Of 'Freak of Nature', bulb specialist Fred Van Bourgondien (at Van Bourgondien in Virginia Beach, Va.) says that one tuber will throw off hundreds of flowers that are all different colors of red and white. You may have all-red, all-white, half-red and half-white, or just a smidgeon of white on a red flower and vice versa. Blooming in late summer, plants will reach just over a foot tall. USDA Zones 8 to 10. Try all of the above as cutflowers, in a mixed perennial border or in containers.

The grand dame of dahlias is the giant tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis). Tony Avent describes its look as "clumping bamboo with flowers." In cultivation, giant tree dahlia will reach up to 12 feet tall in a single season. For gardeners in areas that get a late frost, it will produce single clear-pink blooms, but according to Avent, because it's so tall "you'll need binoculars to see them." This is definitely one to plant in the back of the perennial border. USDA Zones 7 to 8.

An underused bulb that has enormous impact in the garden is pineapple lily. The inflorescence of flowers resemble pineapple fruit, hence the name. An introduction of Plant Delights Nursery, Eucomis comosa 'Sparkling Burgundy' features burgundy-purple, straplike leaves. These are complemented by pinkish-white flowers atop 20-inch, violet-colored stems. Easy care makes it a must-have in the garden. USDA Zones 6b to 9.

Eucomis montana offers quite the contrast in its flower color. The large florets of E. montana have creamy white flowers with black centers, a truly unique combination. Plant size is 12 to 18 inches tall. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

The color green is often overlooked as a desirable flower color, but Gladiolus 'Laguna' gives new meaning to using this color in the garden. 'Laguna' features three- to four-foot spikes of chartreuse green flowers with violet-purple edging. Use it in the middle to back of a perennial border or as a cutflower. USDA Zones 8 to 11.

A most unusual and certainly under-used vine, glory lily hasn't quite caught the eye of many mainstream gardeners, but take a look at this! Sally Ferguson, spokesperson of the Netherlands Bulb Information Center in New York, describes the glory lily flower as "the ultimate tropical flower." Resembling "parachuting spiders," the reflexed petals bend backwards, revealing prominent stamens that project forward. The flowers decorate the wiry but sturdy stems.

Gloriosa 'Lutea' has solid yellow flowers. G. superba has orange flowers with yellow edges, while the blooms of G. superba 'Rothschildiana' are red with yellow edges. Ferguson recommends burying the long, slender, finger-like Gloriosa tubers just below the soil surface. Train vines up a trellis, fence or tree trunk. USDA Zones 8 to 10.

Looking for a truly unique summer-blooming lily? Well, look no further than Lilium 'Miss Lucy' — the first true double-flowering oriental lily. Its soft pink flowers lack the stamens that often lead to messy staining on clothing or tablecloths indoors, so 'Miss Lucy' makes a superb cutflower without the mess. In the garden, flowers persist for several weeks, starting in mid-summer and lasting through late summer. It grows three to four feet tall. USDA Zones 3 to 10.

Combining the fragrance of the oriental lily and the large flowers of the trumpet lily, 'Orania' is a unique hybrid whose yellow-peach, trumpet-like flowers have dark-rose accents. Standing about three to four feet tall, 'Orania' blooms in mid- to late-summer. USDA Zones 4 to 8.

Shamrocks (Oxalis sp.) often are overlooked for garden use. However, reconsider using these in your plantings. Sally Ferguson suggests that shamrocks create an understory of interest. They may not grab your eye initially, she says, but they add a bit of sophistication and attention to detail with its planting. "All too often people go to the leading man or woman, like elephant ears, without going to the supporting players. And often when you use the supporting players, it gives the planting a more sophisticated look," says Ferguson.

Some selections of interest include O. rubra whose violet purple flowers appear all summer long and O. regnelli, the green form, and O. regnelli var. triangularis, the purple-leafed form. Plants generally reach about one foot tall. Note: several species of Oxalis have a tendency to naturalize and can be somewhat invasive. So it is best to exercise caution when planting in the garden. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

One of the boldest statements made for shade this season is Xanthosoma 'Lime Zinger'. Chartreuse lime-green foliage adds a tropical punch to the shade. Use in contrast with fine-textured or darker-colored plants, like Colocasia esculenta 'Black Magic'. Plant in partial to full shade and in a moist to consistently wet soils. Avoid letting 'Lime Zinger' dry out as it tends to stunt growth and burn leaf margins. Plant size is two to three feet tall. USDA Zones 10 to 11.

Someone once said that bigger is better. If you agree with that statement, take a look at White Giant calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica 'White Giant'). The flower stalks on this calla lily grow to be about six feet tall. Flowers are creamy white, and the green-and-white speckling on the foliage complete the oversized package. Plant in full to partial sun in a well-drained soil. USDA Zones 7 to 10.

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