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8 tropical bulbs for your garden

By: Garden Gate staff
Want to get away to a tropical oasis in your own yard? Try these 8 tropical bulbs that supply lush blooms and dramatic foliage.

Add tropical flair to your garden

Few plants add as much impact or color as tropical bulbs. These heat loving plants, with their bold, sensational blooms or striking, texture-rich foliage. These plants grow from bulbs, tubers, or rhizomes but you'll see them referred to by the general term, bulbs, here. They're all perfect for creating a tropical feel wherever they’re planted, from the front to back of the border, in containers or even shade.

Staking tips

Providing support for flower stalks may seem tedious, but without some help, heavy blooms can flop over, especially after a storm. It’s easy, and pretty discreet, for flowers to stand tall with just two items: green twine and bamboo stakes.

tropical-plants-for-your-garden-staking-peruvian-daffodil-tip: Plants with large clusters of flowers like Peruvian daffodil benefit from staking.

Staking Peruvian daffodil

Peruvian daffodil, above, has thin stalks that aren’t strong enough to hold up clusters of big flowers. Stick a single stake a few inches from the stem when buds form and tie the two together with twine, just like you see in the illustration.

tropical-plants-for-your-garden-staking-gladiolusl-tip: This staking technique helps keep groups of tall flowers from flopping.

Staking gladiolus

You don’t have to individually stake a clump of tall-growing gladioli, though — plants can hold each other up with a little extra support. As buds begin to form, use four stakes to create the points of a square or rectangle around the planting, and wrap twine around the perimeter. Then weave the twine through the planting, winding it around stakes at opposite corners, to make an “X” through the middle of the clump, just like you see above.

How-to store tropical bulbs, corms & tubers overwinter

Because most of these bulbs aren't very cold-hardy, these tender bulbs will need some extra attentions at the end of the season. Some, such as oxalis, can be treated as annuals or overwintered in containers indoors. If you have the space, just leave them in a sunny window until spring. The rest, however, like Peruvian daffodil and rain lily, will need a little extra care to survive winters in USDA zones 7 or 8 and colder. Find out more about these 8 favorite tropical bulbs and how to take care of them below.

If they won’t make it through winter outdoors in your zone, follow these tips to store these tropical plants. You can find more detailed steps on how to overwinter tender bulbs here.

  1. Just before or after the first frost, use a fork to carefully dig up bulbs several inches from the base of the plant.
  2. Keeping them sorted by type, gently shake away extra soil, cut their stems down to a couple of inches and wash them. Disease can enter and spread through wounds or bruised spots, so this is a good time to check for both.
  3. Toss any that are damaged or were pierced while digging, and let the healthy ones dry out of direct sunlight for at least 24 hours.
  4. Next, layer them with peat moss, in a container that will allow air to circulate. Leave enough room between each bulb, tuber or corm so they aren’t touching.
  5. Then move the storage container to a low-light spot where temps will stay between 40 to 50 degrees F and check inside about once a month.
  6. If any are beginning to shrivel, just moisten the peat moss with a few sprays of water.

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Tropical bulbs for your garden

Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis x festalis)

Also known as “spider lily,” fragrant Peruvian daffodil can take wet soil even when plants are dormant — in fact, where the ground stays consistently moist, the bulbs multiply quickly, with new ones blooming within a year or two.

Begin planting Peruvian daffodil 3 to 5 inches deep as soon as nighttime temps stay above 60 degrees F.

Type Bulb Blooms White or pale yellow with green throats in early summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 30 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 8 to 10

Oxalis (Oxalis triangularis)

Oxalis’ lush foliage looks great filling a container or carpeting a shady spot, like beneath a hedge of shrubs or at the base of an understory tree. Though other types of oxalis can take full sun, and may even have more blooms there, these rosy-centered purple leaves have richer color in shade. Drop a bulb into an inch-deep hole in the ground or pots — they’ll grow no matter which direction they’re planted.

If oxalis needs winter protection in your area, bring containers indoors and treat them like house plants — they’ll thrive in cool temps beside a window.

Type Corm Blooms White to pale purple in late spring to summer Light Part to full shade Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 8 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 7 to 10

Tuberous begonia (Begonia hybrids)

From hanging baskets to edging, tuberous begonia is perfect all over the shade garden, thanks to its array of colors, shapes and sizes. For example, upright Nonstop™ Fire, in the photo, has yellow, orange and red 4-inch double blooms, while Illumination® White’s 2-inch double flowers cascade.

Start tubers—plant them shallowly, with the concave or hollow side pointing up—about four weeks before the last predicted frost, and transplant only after all danger of frost has passed. Choose a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade, and feed weekly with ¼-strength water-soluble fertilizer once blooms begin. But be careful—overwatering can cause rot.

Type Tuber Blooms Single or double red, pink, orange, yellow, white or bicolor picotee from summer to frost Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 6 to 30 in. tall, 6 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrids)

Hummingbirds love the miniature blooms of 3-foot-tall ‘Atom’ above. Gladiolus flowers are excellent in fresh-cut bouquets, too, opening from the bottom of the stalk upward. With so many flower colors and shapes, as well as a wide range of heights, to choose from, these spikes can go anywhere they’ll get full sun and good drainage.

Fora longer period of blooms, plant corms at a depth about four times their diameter beginning 2 weeks before the last predicted frost and continuing every other week until early summer. Space corms 4 to 6 inches apart—single spikes are attention-grabbing, but clusters of gladiolus make a bigger impact.

Type Corm Blooms All colors except blue in summer Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 72 in. tall, 10 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11 

Rain lily (Zephyranthes spp. and hybrids)

The species, above, is lavender-pink, but hybridizing has made a range of bloom colors, such as white, yellow, orange and peach available.

Rain lily doesn’t need much moisture until plants are in bloom. Then, these aptly named bulbs will look best after a rainfall or when you water them. After the chance of frost has passed, plant bulbs 2 inches deep at the front of the border or in containers. Each flower only lasts a day or two, but flushes of new blooms should continue through early fall.

Type Bulb Blooms Lavender-pink, white, yellow, orange or peach from late summer to early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 8 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 7 to 11

Caladium (Caladium hybrids)

Perfect in well-watered containers on a shady patio or as dramatic additions to beds or borders in dense shade, caladium comes in an array of leaf colors and patterns. For example, ‘Mrs W.B. Haldeman’ above has leaves with rosy pink centers and light green margins, while ‘Miss Muffet’ has wavy, pale green foliage and pink veining and speckling.

No matter which type you plant, though, caladiums like heat and humidity. So in the North, try planting tubers indoors in early spring to give them a head start. In the South, plant tubers, with the side that has the most “eyes” pointing up, 2 inches deep when soil temps are at least 70 degrees F. If the ground is too cool, they may rot before sprouting.

Type Tuber Blooms Insignificant Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained, humus-rich, slightly acid Size 8 to 24 in. tall, 6 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Aztec lily (Sprekelia formosissima)

Sometimes called “Jacobean lily,” Aztec lily does best in full sun and a spot with very well-drained soil, like a container, raised bed or rock garden. Plant bulbs 4 inches deep and 8 inches apart, watering the area as the flower stalk begins to emerge, and keeping soil moist until the foliage starts to fade. In a site with exceptional drainage, bulbs can survive winters in USDA zone 7 covered with a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch.

There’s no need to frequently divide — well-established clumps don’t like to be disturbed and may even rebloom every few years in late summer to early fall if left alone. So if you live where digging and storing is necessary, but you don’t see as many blooms as you’d like, try growing Aztec lily in containers that are easy to move inside, instead. In pots, leave the neck above the surface of the mix for the best drainage.

Type Bulb Blooms Deep red in early summer, may rebloom in late summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 14 in. tall, 6 to 9 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)

Most calla lily cultivars in this species have the classic look that comes to mind when you think of these flowers: Waxy white blooms and glossy green foliage that glisten in sunlight or moonlight. But some cultivars, such as ‘Pink Mist’, have unique flower colors or foliage traits that stand out.

All of these calla lilies also like wet soil and will thrive in the muddy border along a pond or in a bog garden. If you’d like to put tubers in other spots, just make sure they get regular moisture. Planting in part shade helps, especially in the South. Wait until soil temps are above 60 degrees F and danger of frost has passed to plant tubers 3 to 4 inches deep.

Type Tuber Blooms White, white and green or pale pink in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Wet to moist Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10 

Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis x festalis)

Also known as “spider lily,” fragrant Peruvian daffodil can take wet soil even when plants are dormant — in fact, where the ground stays consistently moist, the bulbs multiply quickly, with new ones blooming within a year or two.

Begin planting Peruvian daffodil 3 to 5 inches deep as soon as nighttime temps stay above 60 degrees F.

Type Bulb Blooms White or pale yellow with green throats in early summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 30 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 8 to 10

Rain lily (Zephyranthes spp. and hybrids)

The species, above, is lavender-pink, but hybridizing has made a range of bloom colors, such as white, yellow, orange and peach available.

Rain lily doesn’t need much moisture until plants are in bloom. Then, these aptly named bulbs will look best after a rainfall or when you water them. After the chance of frost has passed, plant bulbs 2 inches deep at the front of the border or in containers. Each flower only lasts a day or two, but flushes of new blooms should continue through early fall.

Type Bulb Blooms Lavender-pink, white, yellow, orange or peach from late summer to early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 8 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 7 to 11

Oxalis (Oxalis triangularis)

Oxalis’ lush foliage looks great filling a container or carpeting a shady spot, like beneath a hedge of shrubs or at the base of an understory tree. Though other types of oxalis can take full sun, and may even have more blooms there, these rosy-centered purple leaves have richer color in shade. Drop a bulb into an inch-deep hole in the ground or pots — they’ll grow no matter which direction they’re planted.

If oxalis needs winter protection in your area, bring containers indoors and treat them like house plants — they’ll thrive in cool temps beside a window.

Type Corm Blooms White to pale purple in late spring to summer Light Part to full shade Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 8 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy USDA zones 7 to 10

Caladium (Caladium hybrids)

Perfect in well-watered containers on a shady patio or as dramatic additions to beds or borders in dense shade, caladium comes in an array of leaf colors and patterns. For example, ‘Mrs W.B. Haldeman’ above has leaves with rosy pink centers and light green margins, while ‘Miss Muffet’ has wavy, pale green foliage and pink veining and speckling.

No matter which type you plant, though, caladiums like heat and humidity. So in the North, try planting tubers indoors in early spring to give them a head start. In the South, plant tubers, with the side that has the most “eyes” pointing up, 2 inches deep when soil temps are at least 70 degrees F. If the ground is too cool, they may rot before sprouting.

Type Tuber Blooms Insignificant Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained, humus-rich, slightly acid Size 8 to 24 in. tall, 6 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Tuberous begonia (Begonia hybrids)

From hanging baskets to edging, tuberous begonia is perfect all over the shade garden, thanks to its array of colors, shapes and sizes. For example, upright Nonstop™ Fire, in the photo, has yellow, orange and red 4-inch double blooms, while Illumination® White’s 2-inch double flowers cascade.

Start tubers—plant them shallowly, with the concave or hollow side pointing up—about four weeks before the last predicted frost, and transplant only after all danger of frost has passed. Choose a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade, and feed weekly with ¼-strength water-soluble fertilizer once blooms begin. But be careful—overwatering can cause rot.

Type Tuber Blooms Single or double red, pink, orange, yellow, white or bicolor picotee from summer to frost Light Part to full shade Soil Moist, well-drained Size 6 to 30 in. tall, 6 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Aztec lily (Sprekelia formosissima)

Sometimes called “Jacobean lily,” Aztec lily does best in full sun and a spot with very well-drained soil, like a container, raised bed or rock garden. Plant bulbs 4 inches deep and 8 inches apart, watering the area as the flower stalk begins to emerge, and keeping soil moist until the foliage starts to fade. In a site with exceptional drainage, bulbs can survive winters in USDA zone 7 covered with a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch.

There’s no need to frequently divide — well-established clumps don’t like to be disturbed and may even rebloom every few years in late summer to early fall if left alone. So if you live where digging and storing is necessary, but you don’t see as many blooms as you’d like, try growing Aztec lily in containers that are easy to move inside, instead. In pots, leave the neck above the surface of the mix for the best drainage.

Type Bulb Blooms Deep red in early summer, may rebloom in late summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 14 in. tall, 6 to 9 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

Gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrids)

Hummingbirds love the miniature blooms of 3-foot-tall ‘Atom’ above. Gladiolus flowers are excellent in fresh-cut bouquets, too, opening from the bottom of the stalk upward. With so many flower colors and shapes, as well as a wide range of heights, to choose from, these spikes can go anywhere they’ll get full sun and good drainage.

Fora longer period of blooms, plant corms at a depth about four times their diameter beginning 2 weeks before the last predicted frost and continuing every other week until early summer. Space corms 4 to 6 inches apart—single spikes are attention-grabbing, but clusters of gladiolus make a bigger impact.

Type Corm Blooms All colors except blue in summer Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 24 to 72 in. tall, 10 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11 

Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)

Most calla lily cultivars in this species have the classic look that comes to mind when you think of these flowers: Waxy white blooms and glossy green foliage that glisten in sunlight or moonlight. But some cultivars, such as ‘Pink Mist’, have unique flower colors or foliage traits that stand out.

All of these calla lilies also like wet soil and will thrive in the muddy border along a pond or in a bog garden. If you’d like to put tubers in other spots, just make sure they get regular moisture. Planting in part shade helps, especially in the South. Wait until soil temps are above 60 degrees F and danger of frost has passed to plant tubers 3 to 4 inches deep.

Type Tuber Blooms White, white and green or pale pink in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Wet to moist Size 18 to 36 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10 

Published: Aug. 26, 2019
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