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Heirloom Summer Bulbs

By: Chloe Deike Chloe Deike
If you’re looking to add some classic charm to your garden, consider growing summer bulbs like gladiolus, dahlias & lilies! See our favorite heirloom flowers that you can enjoy for years here.

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia bloom by Garden Gate Magazine: ‘Café au Lait’ dahlia is a beautiful bloom for summer borders.

Heirloom summer bulbs

You know a plant is well-loved, timeless and a good addition to any garden if it has been zealously passed on and preserved from generation to generation. I love heirloom summer bulbs for their vivid presence, their splash of color and sudden appearance in the middle of a season when other plants are starting to whimper and fade. You can find them in elegant and over-the-top gardens, as well as planted in a line along the edge of a family’s vegetable patch, adding beauty to an otherwise ordinary spot.

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What is an heirloom?

The term “heirloom” is defined a little differently from gardener to gardener. But there’s one element that fits the definition of heirloom: A plant that has been passed on through family members, neighbors or entire communities from generation to generation. Because they aren’t always widely available, growing heirloom summer bulbs can make you an important link in the chain that keeps these plants thriving. Does that feel like too much pressure? No worries. These plants are resilient and easy to care for — why else would they have lasted through the years so well? Just plant them in spring either in pots indoors to get a head start or in the ground after all danger of frost is past. Technically these plants are bulbs, corms or tubers, but I’ll use the general term “bulb” to refer to them all here in the care section just to make it easy.

Winter care for summer bulbs

Several of these heirloom summer bulbs are only hardy in USDA zones 8 and warmer and you can treat them as annuals in cold-winter regions. But you can also overwinter them indoors to continue the tradition of saving heirloom bulbs and save on your garden budget.

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Growing bulbs in containers

The easiest solution for overwintering is to grow bulbs in a container that you can move in and out of a sheltered spot that doesn't freeze in winter, such as a basement or a garage connected to the house. If that's not an option, you can dig the bulbs in fall after a hard frost has zapped the foliage. Brush off the soil and cut the stems back to the bulb. Let them dry for several days to a week in a shady spot out of the rain to help prevent rot. Store the bulbs in a box or bag and keep it in a cool, dry place that won't freeze. I'll share some specific steps with each profile.

Get more summer bulbs with division

Most heirloom plants are preserved by collecting and passing along the seed, but it takes a long time to grow summer bulbs from seed. It’s easier (and quicker!) to dig up and divide plants where these heirloom summer bulbs are not cold hardy. It's easy to do:

  • Wait until the flowers have finished then dig carefully around the clump.
  • If the bulbs don't fall apart, pull bulbs away and replant them right away at the same level they were growing or share them with friends and family.

Favorite heirloom summer bulbs

Now let me show you seven of my favorite heirloom summer bulbs. I’ll walk you through care notes for each plant so you’ll be well-equipped to pass on the legacy from your garden.

‘Starface’ gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrid)

‘Starface’ gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrid)

These dainty little beauties have been stopping gardeners in their tracks since 1960. Its ornately patterned petals are reminiscent of a much earlier time, though: the Victorian era. Peach colored flowers sport raspberry speckling on the upper petals. A cascading of buttery yellow on the bottom petals is punctuated by bright red stripes. And, the flowers sit on smaller plants, too, making them more likely to stay upright without any staking.

Even if you plant all of your bulbs at once, you can get a succession of blooms if you soak some of them in water overnight before planting. The soaked ones will have a headstart and should bloom first.

To save your gladiolus for next year store them in a container that has good air circulation, such as in a mesh bag on a basement or garage shelf.

Type Corm Blooms Small peachy flowers with yellow and red patterning in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 6 to 8 in. wide Hardiness Cold Hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

‘African Queen’ trumpet lily (Lilium hybrid)

‘African Queen’ trumpet lily (Lilium hybrid)

Voluminous and voluptuous, this apricot colored beauty from 1958 sings out like a Broadway diva. This bold flower adds a warm glow and a fine fragrance to your summer evenings on the patio or indoors as a cut flower.

Its ideal location has lots of sun but keeps the roots shaded and cool. If you can’t quite strike this balance, be sure to mulch around the roots to help them retain moisture. Plant bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep so that they are covered with about 2 inches of soil. Its tall stature might require staking. Wait until foliage starts to turn yellow before cutting back in the fall.

Type Bulb Blooms Creamy orange petals with hot pink backsides in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Fertile, well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Milk and Wine’ crinum lily (Crinum x herbertii)

‘Milk and Wine’ crinum lily (Crinum x herbertii)

With roots in the early 1800s, this is a classic passalong plant in Southern gardens, where it grows happily and blooms off and on throughout summer without much fuss.

Plant the bulbs so the neck is just covered in a sunny spot — if you get really hot summers, give it a little afternoon shade. This bulb multiplies easily, especially when left alone and undisturbed, and if you dig some up to share with a friend, expect it to take at least a year to bloom again. In most areas the foliage remains evergreen, but may yellow in the fall or spring. Just trim back the yellow growth and it will bounce back with liveliness soon enough! Crinum lily can also be grown in containers where it’s not hardy. Bring it indoors before frost and set it near a sunny window until spring.

Type Bulb Blooms Clusters of trumpet-shaped blooms are white with pink stripes in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10

‘Star of the East’ crocosmia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

‘Star of the East’ crocosmia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

This fiery crocosmia has more of the beauty and less of the problems of most other varieties. Its smaller stature has stouter stems that sport much larger flowers, and it spreads more slowly than other crocosmias, making it less likely to take over in hotter climates. It won all kinds of garden awards when it was introduced around the turn of the 20th century by George Davison, the first Englishman to breed crocosmias. And it still has reason to be the star of your garden today.

Planting in well-drained soil is a must, and you may need to mulch heavily in winter in cooler climates. In mild winter areas crocosmia can sometimes spread vigorously so you might want to grow them in a raised bed or container where you can keep them contained. Where winter gets below freezing, dig the tender corms after the first frost and let them air dry for 2 to 3 days before storing.

Type Corm Blooms Star-shaped bright orange 4 in. blooms with yellow centers in late summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 30 to 40 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9

Allium (Allium atropurpureum)

Allium (Allium atropurpureum)

With as much complexity as a glass of red wine, this unusually shaped cluster of velvety purple flowers adds an elegant but curious pop of interest to the garden. Grown in the 1800s, its two-century-deep history might be credited to its great resistance to rabbits, deer and other pests. And as a bonus, butterflies, bees and other pollinators absolutely adore it. Learn more about different types of allium in our video!

Plant allium bulbs at a depth that is one to two times the size of their diameter and in a spot where the soil dries out between waterings. Its dainty stature does best when planted in masses for some real drama.

Type Bulb Blooms Deep purple 2-in.-wide umbrella-shaped clusters in early summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 34 in. tall, 4 to 6 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia (Dahlia hybrid)

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia (Dahlia hybrid)

Though it’s been grown since 1967, ‘Café au Lait’ is one of the trendiest flowers for brides even now. It's popular because of the enormous, plush blooms with an unusually creamy, champagne tone that make a wonderfully celebratory cut flower and cutting them only encourages more.

Get a head start by planting one dahlia tuber per 12-inch container indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost, or plant one tuber per square foot outdoors after the soil has warmed. Plant so the eyes face up and minimize watering until a sprout emerges.

To save dahlia tubers for the next growing season wait for a killing frost to zap the foliage. Then cut stalks back to a few inches above the ground, dig up the tuber, clean it off and let it dry before storing it until spring in peat moss or newspaper in a cool dry place that doesn't freeze.

Type Tuber Blooms 8- to 10-in. blushed champagne dinnerplate-sized blooms from midsummer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata)

Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata)

A really unusual flower shape with a fittingly accurate name, red spider lily’s long “spider leg” stamens curve upward from a cluster of star-shaped flowers for a texture that definitely makes a tropical statement in the late summer garden. Many people believe that this bulb first made its way to the United States with a Navy captain, who brought three bulbs from Japan as a gift for his niece.

In fall, plant bulbs 6 inches apart with the top of the neck above soil level. Even in zone 6, this bulb needs a protected place to ensure flowers the next year. If you leave them alone, red spider lily will naturalize into large colonies. If you choose to grow it in a container, the larger, the better: The bulbs don’t like to be disturbed and need lots of room for their extensive root system.

Type Bulb Blooms Clusters of red flowers with long stamens in late summer and early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Fertile, well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 10

‘Starface’ gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrid)

‘Starface’ gladiolus (Gladiolus hybrid)

These dainty little beauties have been stopping gardeners in their tracks since 1960. Its ornately patterned petals are reminiscent of a much earlier time, though: the Victorian era. Peach colored flowers sport raspberry speckling on the upper petals. A cascading of buttery yellow on the bottom petals is punctuated by bright red stripes. And, the flowers sit on smaller plants, too, making them more likely to stay upright without any staking.

Even if you plant all of your bulbs at once, you can get a succession of blooms if you soak some of them in water overnight before planting. The soaked ones will have a headstart and should bloom first.

To save your gladiolus for next year store them in a container that has good air circulation, such as in a mesh bag on a basement or garage shelf.

Type Corm Blooms Small peachy flowers with yellow and red patterning in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 36 in. tall, 6 to 8 in. wide Hardiness Cold Hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

Allium (Allium atropurpureum)

Allium (Allium atropurpureum)

With as much complexity as a glass of red wine, this unusually shaped cluster of velvety purple flowers adds an elegant but curious pop of interest to the garden. Grown in the 1800s, its two-century-deep history might be credited to its great resistance to rabbits, deer and other pests. And as a bonus, butterflies, bees and other pollinators absolutely adore it. Learn more about different types of allium in our video!

Plant allium bulbs at a depth that is one to two times the size of their diameter and in a spot where the soil dries out between waterings. Its dainty stature does best when planted in masses for some real drama.

Type Bulb Blooms Deep purple 2-in.-wide umbrella-shaped clusters in early summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 34 in. tall, 4 to 6 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 7

‘African Queen’ trumpet lily (Lilium hybrid)

‘African Queen’ trumpet lily (Lilium hybrid)

Voluminous and voluptuous, this apricot colored beauty from 1958 sings out like a Broadway diva. This bold flower adds a warm glow and a fine fragrance to your summer evenings on the patio or indoors as a cut flower.

Its ideal location has lots of sun but keeps the roots shaded and cool. If you can’t quite strike this balance, be sure to mulch around the roots to help them retain moisture. Plant bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep so that they are covered with about 2 inches of soil. Its tall stature might require staking. Wait until foliage starts to turn yellow before cutting back in the fall.

Type Bulb Blooms Creamy orange petals with hot pink backsides in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Fertile, well-drained Size 3 to 5 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia (Dahlia hybrid)

‘Café au Lait’ dahlia (Dahlia hybrid)

Though it’s been grown since 1967, ‘Café au Lait’ is one of the trendiest flowers for brides even now. It's popular because of the enormous, plush blooms with an unusually creamy, champagne tone that make a wonderfully celebratory cut flower and cutting them only encourages more.

Get a head start by planting one dahlia tuber per 12-inch container indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost, or plant one tuber per square foot outdoors after the soil has warmed. Plant so the eyes face up and minimize watering until a sprout emerges.

To save dahlia tubers for the next growing season wait for a killing frost to zap the foliage. Then cut stalks back to a few inches above the ground, dig up the tuber, clean it off and let it dry before storing it until spring in peat moss or newspaper in a cool dry place that doesn't freeze.

Type Tuber Blooms 8- to 10-in. blushed champagne dinnerplate-sized blooms from midsummer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

‘Milk and Wine’ crinum lily (Crinum x herbertii)

‘Milk and Wine’ crinum lily (Crinum x herbertii)

With roots in the early 1800s, this is a classic passalong plant in Southern gardens, where it grows happily and blooms off and on throughout summer without much fuss.

Plant the bulbs so the neck is just covered in a sunny spot — if you get really hot summers, give it a little afternoon shade. This bulb multiplies easily, especially when left alone and undisturbed, and if you dig some up to share with a friend, expect it to take at least a year to bloom again. In most areas the foliage remains evergreen, but may yellow in the fall or spring. Just trim back the yellow growth and it will bounce back with liveliness soon enough! Crinum lily can also be grown in containers where it’s not hardy. Bring it indoors before frost and set it near a sunny window until spring.

Type Bulb Blooms Clusters of trumpet-shaped blooms are white with pink stripes in summer Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall, 1 to 2 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10

Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata)

Red spider lily (Lycoris radiata)

A really unusual flower shape with a fittingly accurate name, red spider lily’s long “spider leg” stamens curve upward from a cluster of star-shaped flowers for a texture that definitely makes a tropical statement in the late summer garden. Many people believe that this bulb first made its way to the United States with a Navy captain, who brought three bulbs from Japan as a gift for his niece.

In fall, plant bulbs 6 inches apart with the top of the neck above soil level. Even in zone 6, this bulb needs a protected place to ensure flowers the next year. If you leave them alone, red spider lily will naturalize into large colonies. If you choose to grow it in a container, the larger, the better: The bulbs don’t like to be disturbed and need lots of room for their extensive root system.

Type Bulb Blooms Clusters of red flowers with long stamens in late summer and early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Fertile, well-drained Size 12 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 10

‘Star of the East’ crocosmia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

‘Star of the East’ crocosmia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora)

This fiery crocosmia has more of the beauty and less of the problems of most other varieties. Its smaller stature has stouter stems that sport much larger flowers, and it spreads more slowly than other crocosmias, making it less likely to take over in hotter climates. It won all kinds of garden awards when it was introduced around the turn of the 20th century by George Davison, the first Englishman to breed crocosmias. And it still has reason to be the star of your garden today.

Planting in well-drained soil is a must, and you may need to mulch heavily in winter in cooler climates. In mild winter areas crocosmia can sometimes spread vigorously so you might want to grow them in a raised bed or container where you can keep them contained. Where winter gets below freezing, dig the tender corms after the first frost and let them air dry for 2 to 3 days before storing.

Type Corm Blooms Star-shaped bright orange 4 in. blooms with yellow centers in late summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 30 to 40 in. tall, 12 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9

Published: July 13, 2022
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