unusual flower bulbs to try, with matt mattus

I SUSPECT that you each have several mail-order bulb catalogs on hand, and also that each catalog devotes page after page to gorgeous photos of Narcissus and tulips, often right up front. Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those. But today with help from Matt Mattus, author of the book “Mastering the Art of Flower Gardening,” we’re going to look past those pages at some fantastic but too-often-overlooked bulbs and bulb-like plants that deserve a try.

Before I placed my bulb order, I called Matt, who gardens in Worcester, Massachusetts, and blogs on the website GrowingWithPlants.com. On the latest podcast we showcased some of his favorite bulbs, including the most lily-leaf beetle-resistant lilies, and also some of his top bulb sources.

Read along as you listen to the August 24, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: It’s my first podcast episode ever recorded with the voices of newly hatched heirloom turkeys to accompany us…more on that below (including a photo of the special avian guests). And also, comment at the very bottom of the page for a chance to win’s Matt’s latest book.

unusual bulbs, with matt mattus



Matt: Well, thank you, Margaret. I’m thrilled to be here.

Margaret: To just get started on the subject, I’d kind of like to know: If I’m not going to plant them till October or practically November, why do I need to order bulbs now?

Matt: That’s a great question, Margaret and in fact, I think experienced gardeners are used to ordering bulbs now. I know when I was young, and I’m a lifetime gardener, I used to wonder why I would get bulb catalogs in June and July [laughter], and the older you get the more you start to realize that time…well, first of all, time goes faster, right?

But also, there are correct times to order bulbs, and even though some bulbs like lilies need to be planted later, in October or November when they’re delivered or shipped, they need to be ordered early, because the good ones sell out, and primarily I’m talking about the specialty bulb growers. I mean, if you are in the Lily Society, or a lily society, or you exhibit lilies, you want the newest varieties. And there are, you know, three or four lily nurseries in the United States and in Canada, that grow their own lilies in their own fields and breed their own, and these are some of the newest and best crosses and hybrids available.

And people know the good ones sell out early so you order them early, so it’s sort of like locking in your order early, and then they’re dug in sometimes as late as late October and shipped in November. I sometimes can barely get them in the ground before it freezes. But I think understanding the commercial bulb trade helps, that there’s two ways to get lilies.

You can order them from the great Dutch growers. I think 80 percent of the world’s lilies are grown in the Netherlands. But they’re also grown globally. You know, that balance of the 20 percent are grown in Japan and France and Poland and Germany. And a lot are grown in the Southern Hemisphere, in New Zealand, for the U.S. market, so they’re grown offseason. So those, they’re all great. There’s no bad lily bulb, but there are extraordinary ones. And often you get a bigger bulb from a smaller nursery or a newer variety, so those will sell out fast.

Margaret: Right. Do you have a pet bird?

Matt: [Laughter.] You probably can hear the 20 heirloom turkeys [above] that just hatched in the kitchen here.

Margaret: Oh, wow.

Matt: And there was no escaping them, so I apologize for the peeping in the background.

Margaret: No, it’s hilarious. I thought you had a pet canary or something. That’s hilarious. O.K., good. Well say hello to them. [Laughter.]

Matt: I will. I apologize for that.

Margaret: No, no. No, it’s fine.

And there are some things that are kind of perishable, and maybe we’ll talk about those with some of the ones you recommend. But some of them you want to get them really fresh, so you don’t want the last thing lying around for months either, do you?

Matt: That’s right. Yeah, I mean bulbs in general—or in “bulbs in general” I’m including tubers and corms and rhizomes—but there are some that survive fine out of the ground for a while and there are some that don’t. I think we’ll probably touch on that later. But there’s one thing I wanted to add and that this is, you know, this crazy 2020 year with COVID, it’s affecting the lily bulb industry, especially the small growers. I just received two emails today from small growers that said, “Place your orders now, because by September we’re probably going to shut down the site and switch over to spring 2021 orders.”

Margaret: Wow. O.K.

Matt: You know, because they don’t buy from brokers. They’re not buying from the big multiplying growers in the rest of the world. They basically have a field of ‘Casa Blanca’ and when those are gone, they’re gone.

Margaret: Right.

Matt: So another reason for ordering early.

Margaret: Right. Right. So I’m wanting to widen my palette, and also to tuck in for the winter with maybe some indoor worthy companions that we can get to later on. But so maybe where to begin first is: You just were mentioning lilies. A lot of people have experienced lily-leaf beetle or scarlet lily beetle in recent years, and just quickly: Are there lilies that are a little more bulletproof than others, and what’s your experience so far with that?

Matt: Well, there’s no lily that’s bulletproof from the lily leaf beetle [above at Margaret’s], and I think what a lot of people don’t realize is it’s been here in North America since 1943, right?

Margaret: Right.

Matt: But I didn’t see my first one until maybe 15 years ago in Boston, and they’ve certainly been here in the Northeast and New England earlier than that, but I think we’ll have listeners that have experienced lily beetles. We have some that are probably thinking they’re ladybugs, because let’s face it. They’re gorgeous, right? They’re brilliant red, and you don’t think they’re doing any damage. But I think there are people, too, maybe on the West Coast or in desert areas that haven’t heard of or seen them yet, but I’m sure you’re going to get lots of comments of people saying, “I don’t know what a lily beetle is,” or, “We won’t grow lilies because the lily beetles destroy them.”

Margaret: Right. Right, right.

Matt: Right? So we had them here. Now I live in central Massachusetts, in Worcester. We had terrible outbreaks and infestations of lily beetle. I gave up growing lilies for about 10 years, and then I don’t know, about seven years ago, they seemed to not go away, but you know, you hand-pick 10, 15 off the fritillarias and the lilies, and then that was it.

And I’m on the board of Tower Hill Botanic Garden. We host the New England Lily Show there. And I started seeing a lot of the interspecifics or interdivisional hybrids and crosses being entered that had very little damage, whereas the Asiatics, which are like any lily with speckles or spots on it or upfacing—they tend to suffer more with lily beetle.

But I think it depends on where you live, what you’re willing to do, how strong your gut is if you want to handpick and squish them. They’re kind of hard, but I think all of us have handpicked them off and placed them in a jar of soapy water, right? [Above, an Orienpet lily at Matt’s.]

Margaret: Oh, definitely.

Matt: That’s still the best way, but I wonder if… I know URI, University of Rhode Island, has been experimenting and releasing parasitic wasps.

Margaret: Yes.

Matt: I think their biocontrol lab, right, has released a few and that’s the talk going around the serious lily growers is we’re seeing less here, at least in central Massachusetts, and we’re hoping it’s because of that release of project. I haven’t seen any data to back that up other than anecdotal data. But I certainly don’t do anything for lily beetle anymore.

Margaret: So Matt, there are some smaller bulbs—and I’ve read your blog for years, and some of them I’ve heard of some of the things that you’ve showcased over the years, some smaller things that nobody ever gets to that page in the catalog, except for you. [Laughter.] No, and sometimes me.

So tell us about, I think you have a Corydalis affection, don’t you?

Matt: I do, and it’s funny because I still think a lot of people don’t grow this one Corydalis which you’ll see in the bulb catalog, which is Corydalis solida—S-O-L-I-D-A. There are many Corydalis. I mean, I don’t know how many species, and there’s some invasive ones and if people aren’t familiar with them it kind of looks like, I don’t know, I guess like a miniature bleeding-heart, right? [Corydalis solida photo above from Wikipedia by Bernd Haynold.]

Margaret: And that’s its relative. Yes, yes.

Matt: Yeah, and we know the blue flexuosa like ‘Blue Panda’ and those perennial ones. There’s an invasive one, Corydalis incisa, but there are many tuberous ones or let’s say bulbous ones. And my first exposure with them was at a North American Rock Garden Society auction in the spring, a NARGS auction, and they held up this pot with beautiful pink, a mound of foliage with pink flowers on it. And I’m like, “What is that?” And everyone was bidding on it, and this is when it was the cultivar ‘George Baker,’ which is common. Now you’ll find this in I think many of the big Dutch bulb catalogs, but I think people overlook these. They don’t look like something that would be a bulb.

It looks like a small perennial when it grows, but it looks like an acorn when you get it in the mail, and just remarkably easy to grow but they don’t spread, but they form a clump which can be divided three or four years. And there are named cultivars like really common ones like ‘Beth Evans’ and ‘George Baker’ and ‘Purple Beauty.’ They’re in shades of pinks and purples and whites, just the fantastic woodland ephemeral.

Margaret: Right. I’ve actually found that sometimes, I don’t know who moves it, but somebody must move some of an offset or something. [Laughter.] An animal, I mean. Not Margaret, but someone. Because I’ve found them across the yard sometimes.

Matt: They self-seed.

Margaret: Oh, is that what it is? O.K.

Matt: Yeah, you need more than one clone for it to self-seed, but the same thing has happened to me. I thought I was moving them by accident and, I mean, I wish they would self-seed more. But it’s more like one came over by the greenhouse door and one came over where the dogs run through the gravel, and I have actually saved the seeds and they were very easy to start, but we won’t get into that. They do spread by seed. If you buy two different named varieties, then they will. You need two different clones or two named varieties to get viable seed.

Margaret: O.K. Next on the list of the pages we need to get to and not stop at the tulips and daffodils [laughter]—and again, I love Narcissus, and tulips for cutting; I love Narcissus for the garden, so I’m not dissing those.

Matt: No. It’s really about finding something new to grow, especially now with COVID. I mean, where more of us are gardening, or we’re getting bored.

Margaret: Yeah. So what would be next on your sort of “look for this” list?

Matt: I would add the wood anemones. Now, you’re going to find these listed in some of the Dutch bulb catalogs. And sometimes they just use the variety names, so look for the Latin name. This is just because it’s not a common plant, so often they’ll name it what they want to try and sell it [laughter], but the wood anemones are basically Anemone nemorosa. I always think of Harry Potter. It’s sort of, Anemone nemoro-SAH. [Above, a lineup of Matt’s A. nemorosa varieties.]

Margaret: O.K.

Matt: It’s a great European species. Now, I think some people have anemones in the yard that are invasive, right? There’s some really nasty thugs. This is not one. I wish it was. But, Anemone nemorosa is well known amongst serious gardeners. It’s a woodland plant. It at most grows 6, 7 inches tall in the garden. It slowly spreads into a loose colony of single anemone flowers, like a daisy almost, but more like five petals and shades of blues and purples. Not true blue, but lavender-blue or purple or white or pink. And the variety name is sometimes listed as Robinsoniana, but I’ve seen these in Dutch catalogs as just Robinsoniana as the name of the plant, so it doesn’t matter which.

You know, there’s ‘Bowle’s Blue.’ There’s ‘Lismore Blue.’ There’s the Leed’s variety. These are ones I’ve just double-checked in some of the bulb catalogs this fall that are available, and sometimes the photo’s not included so I always encourage to Google the photos, see if you love it. But there are three sort of woodland anemones. There’s one called Anemone ranunculoides. There isn’t a common name for it, but you will see this, too, in a few catalogs. Maybe you can list a few on your site.

Margaret: Oh, I want to get your list of sources totally to go with the transcript, because you really shop at some interesting places that aren’t the mainstream ones that might be sending us all millions of catalogs unsolicited. [Laughter.]

Matt Mattus: So it’s any of the Anemone ranunculoides, or there’s one called Anemone x lipsiensis, and I first saw this at a plant auction. But I think of all the woodland anemones, it sort of spreads the best and forms like a pillow of dark foliage, maybe 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and it’s covered in sort of an ivory-yellowish anemone flower, and it just gets better every year, and I divide them after they bloom.

And they’re expensive. You know, there’s no way around that. You might be paying $15 for a dormant pot that you get in the mail, in the fall. You could also plant these in the spring, but usually you get it after it blooms so this gives you a jump. But know that they disappear by July like most ephemerals in the garden.

And they’re not bulbs. They’re really dormant rhizomes, but this is why we find them in bulb catalogs. And I guess we should mention the anemonellas, right? Anemonella thalictroides. You must have some of those, right?

Margaret: Well, I maybe have one big clump, but that’s about it.

Matt: The varieties are like ‘Schoaf’s Double Pink’ or ‘Cameo.’ Those are two common ones you’ll see in some catalogs, so I think definitely would highly recommend those. They can be pricey. Yeah, but worth it.

Margaret: So, Anemonella thalictroides. Did that use to be Thalictrum thalictroides?

Matt: You’re good. Yes, absolutely, so you may find it still listed as that, of course.

Margaret: Well, and that’s, I think, the thing and you mentioned briefly: When we go to look for some of these things, don’t just see the name and think, “Oh, there’s no picture. I’m not interested.” Go do a Google search, or from listening to the show, go do a Google search and look at the pictures of some of these things that Matt’s recommending.

Because again, it may not get top billing and a quarter-page photo in the catalog, or even online, and you have to do your homework before you know which ones you want to get. So for instance, I just circled and wrote down madly while you were talking about the, let’s see, Anemone x lipsiensis. Boy, that’s a mouthful.

Matt: [Laughter.] It is, isn’t it? [Below, Anemone x lipsiensis at Matt’s.]

Margaret: …x lipsiensis, and because you said it has dark foliage and gets a beautiful mound and then sort of off-white to almost pale yellowish flower. I mean, it sounds just breathtaking.

Matt: It really is. You know, the others are rather slow spreaders, and that is one once I saw it in a garden on a garden tour once I’m like, “How did you get that into that mound?” And that’s what’s best about it. It spreads a little faster, and makes a denser colony.

Margaret: And this is again, woodland-y—like meaning bright shade, or what kind of situation?

Matt: Yeah. I mean in the wild they grow under deciduous trees in open forests, right? So it’s underneath a crabapple, or not a magnolia. Maybe that’s too dark, but I have them in a perennial border in a section where I keep all my woodland plants, so I’m really never digging in there with a trowel. I think even maybe near a hosta or something, small hostas, but really great under hellebores. I’ve seen amazing gardens with hellebores underplanted with Anemone x lipsiensis.

Margaret: O.K, so these are some unusual things that you’ve been recommending—the Corydalis, the anemones, the woodland anemones, the anemonellas. Are you also ordering … We’re going to ask you what you’re ordering now, Matt. [Laughter.] Are you, because you’re not allowed to buy any more plants, then neither am I.

Matt Mattus: Yeah. Right.

Margaret: Are you ordering any things for indoors that… I know you have a greenhouse and I don’t and probably most of the listeners don’t—but are there any things that, you know, it’s a weird time. It’s a hard year. We’re all going to tuck in again for the offseason. We’re not going to be out in our gardens. I’d love to bring some more roommates indoors with me, but again, I don’t have a greenhouse. Are there any things that I could indulge in that could be fun for indoors?

Matt: Beyond paperwhites?

Margaret: Yeah, exactly. Which actually—I love them, but I don’t love the smell.

Matt: See, I love the smell.

Margaret: Oh, interesting. O.K.

Matt: But there are some bulbs that, you know, there were so many bulbs at least in New England or on the East Coast that were available in the early 19th century that we just don’t see that much anymore. It may be because they had cold greenhouses, but I think generally it’s because they had cold homes. You know, you had wood-fired homes or coal-fired homes. But a lot of these were South African bulbs, and I think some of the best are first of all Veltheimia bracteata, which-

Margaret: Veltheimia with a V. V-E-L-T-H-E-I-M-I-A. [Above, Matt’s Veltheimia ‘Lemon Flame’.]

Matt: Yeah, it’s another mouthful. Sometimes sold in catalogs as red hot pokers, but you know, that can be confusing because it can be confused with other plants. But it’s a bulb, but it’s more of a perennial bulb that sometimes go semi-dormant in the summer, but others say it doesn’t go dormant at all. I have some in the greenhouse that go dormant when it gets hot, but regardless, it will grow—and very easy as a houseplant.

It grows very much like your Eucomis, like your pineapple lilies, where it’s sort of a central crown of foliage that emerges, and then by midwinter a central stalk comes up and blooms with tubular, generally pink flowers. Very easy. In fact, once you have one, it starts dividing and you have more and more to share, so I would definitely look for that.

A more unusual one would be Lachenalia, or actually it should be Lachenalia I believe because it’s named after Werner of Lachenal, but Lachenalia or cape hyacinths. Very common in the early 19th century, but a bit of a challenge to find today. I do have two sources. I know Telos Rare Bulbs carries them, and you could order them from the UK, from Nerines.com, but you’d have to buy phyto-sanitary certificates. [Laughter.] So I would say for $150 [for the certificate] you may want to chip in with the garden club and order them, but these are in the hyacinth family. Beautiful speckled foliage, and certainly could grow them on a cool, sunny windowsill. If you have an unheated bedroom, even better, but I’ve grown these.

I mean, we keep our house pretty cool here, in the mid-60s to low-50s at night, and they do fine in the windows, but when they stop blooming I do throw them out in the greenhouse,. But it’s pretty sturdy and you could treat these like a paperwhite, so you could literally order bulbs let’s say from Telos Rare Bulbs and plant them in a pot and they’re going to start growing by the holidays, and then bloom in January and February. So they again have tubular flowers, very similar to the Veltheimia. I would say if you can find them, the species, anything with aloides meaning it has a flower like an aloe. A-L-O-I-D-E-S.

Margaret: Oh, so if the species name is aloides? Is that what you mean?

Matt: Correct.

Margaret: O.K.

Matt: Yeah, so Lachenalia aloides [flower photo, top of page at Matt’s; bulbs just above], and you’ll see Lachenalia aloides variety quadricolor. That’s sort of the most popular one, where it has four colors in the flower. Red to orange to yellow to green, in a tubular flower. It’s just stunning.

Margaret: O.K. So, about some of those sources, you said Telos? Is that what you were-

Matt: Correct. They’re in California, Northern California, and I just checked her website so she maybe has 14 different species of the cape hyacinths, or Lachenalia, right now. Not many of the hybrid ones, though. The hybrid ones, it’s funny. They’ve developed a strain called the African Beauty strain, if you can find it. Every catalog seemed to carry it for the past five years, but I think a lot of people didn’t buy them. So they’ve stopped carrying them.

Margaret: Right.

Matt: But I’ve even found them at my garden center sold in bags as African Beauties, and I’ve seen them thrown out by the hundreds at Easter time because no one bought them, so just look for them.

Margaret: So what about a few of your favorite, some of your lily sources? Where would I look for lilies among the ones that you recommended? Like B&D Lilies is one lily source I’ve used in the past. What are some other lily sources?

Matt: B&D, fantastic lily source. So, B&D and The Lily Garden are two nurseries, and it’s in Washington state, I believe, right? Or Vancouver area of Washington, and some of the finest lily bulbs you can get there, and think in Canada there’s The Lily Nook. They sell through to the U.S., too, throughout North America. I would say those are the three specialty lily sources, meaning those are nurseries that breed and grow their own lilies. And the rest of the sources, certainly all the bulb catalogs that you’re seeing tulips and hyacinths in. They have a lily section. I will say a good reason to order lilies in the fall, versus spring, is that if you plant a spring bulb, it’ll be about 20 percent smaller that first year. It’ll grow, but yeah, fall bulbs are much better.

Margaret: O.K. I have a quick question about my… you mentioned Eucomis briefly, the pineapple lilies. And I went on a binge a number of years ago and started collecting different ones. When should I divide them, repot them? What should be the protocol with those if you’re growing them? I usually just store them in the cellar or something, you know, dormant.

Matt: Yeah. I repot them when they’re dormant, so I usually do it around February. It’s a little bit different than something in the Amaryllis family, so let’s say an amaryllis or a Nerine. Those are in amaryllis. They’re dormant, but they keep their roots alive when they’re dormant. In fact, they’re sort of designed. So if the roots are still alive, I wouldn’t try and damage the roots.

I’m not sure with Eucomis if I’ve noticed that, if the roots are still fleshy. Have you noticed that?

Margaret: I don’t think so, but I’ve done it usually a little later and I’ve wondered if I’ve then sort of thrown it off a little bit. I don’t know.

Matt: I think I’m a lazy grower when it comes to Eucomis. I sometimes forget even to take them out of the cellar or the greenhouse. [Below, pruning time at Matt’s garden.]

Margaret: Well, Matt Mattus, I’m going to be in trouble now, ordering some more. So I will talk to you again soon I hope, and thank you for making time, and say hello to the baby turkeys.

Matt: I will tell them.

(Photos by Matt Mattus, except lily beetle and Corydalis.)

enter to win ‘mastering the art of flower gardening’

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What bulb is on your must-order list this year, and why?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, September 1, 2020. Good luck to all.

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prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 24, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Marianne Pollak says:

    Oh this is just the best…bulbs that I hadn’t known and others and I’ve ignored. Can’t wait to obtain and start planting…especially like the ones that can be indoors also…

  2. Nancy Watts says:

    I will be putting in new Yellow Daffodils. I know that not really exciting but my Mom had them in her wedding bouquet. She also loved Daffodils. She would say they are happy flowers. Since Mom has been gone I want something in my garden that will wake of each spring and remind me of my her. Plus living in northern Utah( zone 4) Bulbs are such a reminder that yes Spring is coming, because some year we really wonder.

  3. Hilary says:

    This is the first year I’ve ordered lilies in more unusual colors Can’t wait for them to arrive. Also adding some pink daffodil varieties.

  4. Carole says:

    Since I am now permanently in the Berkshires, maybe this is the year I get some bulbs planted since only one daffodil flower bloomed last spring. I had better start my search!

  5. Suzanne Schwartz says:

    My must have bulbs to order are heirloom tiger lillies! Doesn’t seem like you seem them in gardens as in the past – used to be you would see great stands of them growing in gardens. I think they are stunning!!

  6. Karen says:

    Allium obliquum. I love alliums. They are reliable and provide unexpected visual interest. We are used to seeing purple ornamental onions, but this one has pale yellow/green flowers and I think it will look incredible with daffodils. And they are a bit weird. I enjoy some weird in the garden.

  7. Sue Pezzolla says:

    Every year I add more of the botanicals, the shorter more perennial of the tulips. I find them reliable and versatile in the garden and not bothered by much.

  8. Bree Kauzlarich says:

    OH! This is the first year I will be actually ordering bulbs and not getting them from my local nursery! I want allium sphaerocephalon! Can’t wait to see these drumstick shaped deep magenta-purple rise up through the Mexican feather grass!

  9. Jennifer says:

    I am looking to add Corydalis and Erythronium to my shade garden. And a few Allium schubertii, they didn’t bloom the past two springs, so I’m going to try a new location.

  10. shiner says:

    I am ordering Leucojium. I planted 10 of them last year and am adding another 10 this fall.

    My fall blooming crocus should be arriving soon.

  11. Sonia Jaslow says:

    Tulips, of course! I;m a sucker every year. But I would like to try some new ones this year. I love bulbs—low effort high reward!

  12. Marie says:

    I’m looking for bulbs to extend my growing season which means I’m looking for bulbs that bloom early. I ordered Eranthis among other bulbs to plant this fall. This is a great article; it’s given me lots of ideas. I have been planting more and more tropical bulbs and overwintering them in a closet in my basement. I’ve had great luck with pineapple lilies and ginger lilies. Can’t wait to try more!

  13. Joan Miller says:

    Loved this episode. It’s exactly the nudge needed for me to move beyond tulips and daffodils.
    I’m hoping to try Veltheimia ‘Lemon Flame’. It’ll be such a wintertime treat.

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