Many people are amazed to learn that there are bulbs native to California. “Bulbs” conjures images of gladioluses, tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, even snowdrops — all of which are native to other parts of the world. But, bulbs native to California? Really?
Nearly all the bulbs offered in nurseries are bold, fancy versions hybridized from far more modest bulbs found in nature. Our native bulbs are on that “nature” scale. While they are not “in your face” the way a fancy glad might be, that doesn’t mean they are any less beautiful. In fact, in many respects, they are even more remarkable looking.
Yellow Mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus), for example, is native to coastal, valley and foothill areas from the Mexican border, almost to Oregon. All mariposas (there are many kinds) are true lilies. Yellow Mariposa lily’s narrow, grasslike leaves stand only 4 to 8 inches tall. From late spring into summer, foot-tall stalks are topped with cup-shaped flowers of bright yellow (hence the name, “luteus”) with burgundy markings. ‘Golden Orb’ is one of the varieties most widely available to gardeners.
The cup-shaped flowers of Calochortus venustus, butterfly Mariposa lily, look very similar to yellow mariposa. Their flowers, though, can range from white to pink, yellow to purple, even reddish brown, often with reddish markings in the center. These are petite bulbs, only a foot or two tall, native to mountains and foothills from the Sierras to the San Gabriels, so they are quite cold hardy. Springtime is bloom time. Plant in full or part sun.
Early onion, Allium praecox, is an onion, but probably not an onion you’d choose to eat. It is one you might choose to grow in your garden, especially since it is one of the earliest blooming native bulbs. Flower stalks emerge from foot-tall clumps of slender, grasslike leaves starting in late winter. Through early spring, stalks are topped in clusters of tiny white to pink to purplish flowers. These bulbs do very well in dry shade.
Tube-shaped springtime flowers of Dichelostemma ida-maia, firecracker flower, are an odd combination of crimson red and chartreuse. Foot-tall flower stalks are topped with a handful of dangling blooms, best seen close up. Since these are higher-elevation bulbs from the edges of forests in north coastal California, they perform best planted in shade or part sun.
Dichelostemma capitatum, known as blue dicks, is similar to firecracker flower, but its flower clusters are upright and purply blue/lavender on taller flower stalks.
Soap bulb, Chlorogalum parviflorum is native to the dry, coastal sage scrub widely found throughout coastal San Diego County. Soap bulb’s slender green leaves grow only about 8 inches tall. In late spring and into summer, tiny, white flowers line stalks 1 to 3 feet tall. Each of the star-shaped blooms has six prominent yellow pollen sacks around a swollen, green center. The bulb part of this plant contains a chemical called saponin. If you wet your hands and rub a bulb between them, you’ll get a handful of soapy foam, hence their use by American Indians. Don’t drink the foam, though, as saponin is toxic. Plant in full sun, where bulbs can go dry in summer.
All of these bulbs live through hot, dry summers with no irrigation. As summer approaches, their foliage withers to the ground. The bulbs are dormant, then, until fall rains, when new foliage appears. They do best under conditions that emulate nature, so plant them in unirrigated areas. They are longest lived in well-draining soils.