California gardeners, you have a choice: You can knock yourself out trying to grow tulips, crocus and other cold-climate bulbs in the milder parts of the state – only to be disappointed a year later – or you can plant some tougher, lesser-known bulbs and simply walk away, then watch the plants bloom year after year with little or no care. They won’t need digging, storing, dusting or dividing. They’ll go completely dormant in summer but will return the following fall, as reliable as taxes and car payments.


The 3- to 4-foot-tall watsonias such as the variety ‘Peach Glow’ are hard to miss and easy to grow.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus


The much shorter, 1-foot-tall baboon flowers work well by rocks or paths.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Babiana closeup

Baboon flowers are a riotous mix of violet and purple.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

(My vote is for choice No. 2.)

Those who have tried growing tulips and similar bulbs in California know that the plants might bloom the first spring, if the beds are properly prepared and they get the right care. But the following year will be a big disappointment. Your best strategy is to use those plants as rather expensive, one-shot annuals in beds or containers. In other words: Dig them up after flowering and toss them.

The bulbs that do best in the Golden State – not too surprisingly – come from places with similar mild climates, such as the Cape region of South Africa, an area unbelievably rich in bulbs. Only a handful has found its way into the nursery trade, however. Freesias, watsonias and sparaxis are probably the most common and can be found at most local nurseries.

Warning: Don’t use these bulbs in mass plantings, as if they were the tulips seen in catalog photos. That’s not their niche! Plant even the large kinds in clumps of three to five. Some will grow into quite large clumps in a few years, especially the yellow and orange moraeas, which become a tough and durable garden flower about 2½ feet tall, outlasting even bearded iris.

Watsonias are tough, long-lasting and elegantly tall plants. They’ll grow right along large perennial flowers and small shrubs, brightening (at least for a few weeks) garden beds in late spring to midsummer, depending on the species or hybrid. These are not your grandmother’s gladiolus (which they vaguely resemble), and a big clump will impress even the most jaded garden visitor. One recent cultivar introduction named ‘Peach Glow’ has an especially powerful color that’s quite useful in the garden.

At the other end of the scale are the smaller Cape bulbs such as freesias, Babianas and sparaxis. Plant these in little nooks and crannies in the garden, beside a large rock, or next to a path or entry, where they can grow undisturbed for years.

The multicolored common sparaxis are a bit riotous, so you might prefer single-colored kinds such as a pale yellow variety called ‘Lady Buttercup’. Purple or white babianas (baboons eat the corms, hence the common name, baboon flower) are tough, but the most amazing is the wildling Babiana rubrocyanea, a shocking mix of violet-red and purple.

All are best planted in the fall, so find that special spot now, plant a few bulbs and watch them grow. They’ll stay with you for a long time.