Great garden bulbs: Sternbergia lutea

Last year, I visited Montrose and became bewitched by a charming little bulb I’d never seen before: Sternbergia lutea.

A diminutive amaryllid native to the Mediterranean, Sternbergia lutea isn’t widely grown, but it should be. It looks like a tall yellow crocus, but blooms in September. The blooms can be short-lived, but they are followed by grassy green foliage that persists through the winter, then disappears as the rest of the garden wakes up in the spring.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

Sternbergia lutea growing at Montrose.

They like their summers dry–so dry, in fact, that the bases of oak trees provide ideal planting conditions –and prefer being left alone. Heavy clay doesn’t bother them,  either. Don’t lime them, whatever you do, and keep them clear of automated watering systems.

I think they’d look spectacular mixed into a bed of black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ which will tolerate the drought-like conditions the Sternbergias need in the summer, or another dark-leaved ground cover like Ajuga reptans ‘Mahogany.’ Alternatively, a broad-leaved, yellow-variegated ground cover like Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway,’ would complement the blossoms handsomely.

Lamium maculatum ‘Anne Greenway.’ Photo by

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’ Photo by

Unusual garden bulbs make great garden plants. They’re easy for the novice gardener, cheap to buy and grow (many reseed or reproduce by offsets, and require little in the way of fertilizers or pest management schemes), and many bulbs can last forever in the home garden.  Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, VA, carries Sternbergia lutea, among other terrific and unusual plants. And they’re not a sponsor of my site; I just like them.

What are your favorite plants for the fall garden?

Montrose: Weird, wild stuff

Halloween may be over, but the appeal of Osage orange fruit endures.

Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) fruit

The fruit of Maclura pomifera, Osage orange.

On my recent tour of Montrose, we found some unusual looking objects lying about on the ground in the woods. Nancy Goodwin informed us that these are the fruits of Maclura pomifera, also known as Osage orange.

This relative of the mulberry grows as a small tree, between 20-50 feet tall. The fruits, which contain a milky, latex-like juice, are not poisonous to humans, but they don’t taste good. The fruits will float in water. The plant adapts to a wide variety of growing conditions, grows rapidly, and is mostly pest- and disease-free. 

maclura pomifera fruit

The wood is attractive, dense, and extremely strong. Native Americans used the wood for bows. The tree was also planted heavily by the WPA in its Great Plains Shelterbelt program.

Maclura pomifera wood

The wood of Maclura pomifera is strong, dense, stable, and beautiful. It is said to repel cockroaches.

But the plant’s best feature, arguably (though that fruit is quite compelling), is that it repels cockroaches, mosquitoes, and other insects. Studies have found that extracts from the plant perform as well as DEET in repelling mosquitoes.

Want one?

Montrose: More clever plant combinations

When I visit gardens, I’m alert to planting ideas I can borrow (of course, I’ll return them). A few days ago I wrote about the pairing of dawn redwood and cyclamen at Montrose, a pairing I’d love to create but alas, barring a terrible hurricane that destroys all my post oaks, a redwood is not in my future. I just don’t have the real estate. But the gardens at Montrose are not lacking for other attractive planting combinations.

salvia mixed planting at Montrose

Salvia leucantha (purple flowers, at top) and Salvia gregii (pink, at left). Nancy said the S. gregii volunteered in this spot. Plants are so clever, aren’t they?

This vivid combination partners Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage, the plant at the top of the photo with the blue-violet flower spikes) and Salvia gregii ( Autumn sage, the pink-flowered plant at left) with a dramatic plant I had never seen before. The large, dark-purple leaves stand out from across the garden, and the huge purple pods are irresistible.


It offers pink flowers as well. Any guesses as to its identity? Look carefully.

Cotton plant (Gossypium)

Cotton plant (Gossypium)

It’s cotton.

I love unexpected ideas like this. I assume this is Gossypium hirsutum, native to Central and North America. I have only ever seen it growing in roadside fields; never up-close. I like its contrast with rosemary here as well.

The large pods are called bolls, and the cotton fiber (actually called lint) grows inside.

If you wish to grow cotton to harvest, you’ll need a climate with at least six frost-free months (about 200 days to maturity). It likes a somewhat heavy soil. Although growing cotton for production is different from cotton grown ornamentally, take a cue from the plant partners growing with cotton at Montrose: salvias and rosemary like well-drained soil on the dry side. Cotton is perennial in tropical climates and can be harvested year-round in those locations. The pods don’t mature at the same time, though, so the plants must be gone over multiple times to fully harvest them. A cotton gin must be used to separate the seeds from the fibers, if you have other things to do with your life besides cotton-picking.

I’ll stick to growing it as an ornamental.