Eremurus 'Shelford Hybrids'
Eremurus ‘Shelford Hybrids’

With Spring round the corner and thoughts of summer-flowering bulbs, this week’s timely question comes from George White of Walthamstow, London:

‘A friend has some magnificent border plants which he knows only by the name Foxtail Lilies. What are they, and are they easy to grow?’

George, these plants are a glorious addition to summer borders and belong to the genus Eremurus. They are also known as ‘Desert Candles’ and are hardy herbaceous perennials in which tall spikes of star-shaped flowers arise from a ring of narrow, pointed foliage. The best and tallest are the series known as  ‘Shelford Hybrids’, whose flowers vary in colour but are often a pleasing soft, pinky beige. They can reach 2.75 metres tall and bear hundreds of primrose-sized flowers.

Eremurus stenophyllus bungei  is the yellow-flowered parent of these hybrids and reaches 1 metre in height. The other parent E. olgae, is late flowering, bears pink blooms, and reaches a height of 1.5 metres.

Other fine examples are the very tall E. elwesii with soft pink flowers (and it’s white-flowered variety ‘Albus’), and the even taller (up to 3 metres) E. robustus with pinky yellow flowers on spikes up to 1.2 metres long. Eremurus are quite easy to grow as long as they have a free draining soil around their roots and have lots of warm sunshine. Here’s a video on how to plant Eremurus bulbs. It will probably be at least one season before you see any flowers.

If you can’t wait until next year then now’s the time to  think about some other unusual summer flowering bulbs for your borders.

Camassia (Quamash) are easy to grow and are attractive late spring performers that look good with late tulips (I have some whose lavender-purple flower spikes contrast well with the orange tulip ‘Ballerina’). C. cusickii is 200mm tall with lots of pale blue flowers, while C. quamash (syn. esculenta) has spikes of white to deep-blue flowers and grows to 250mm tall. C. leichtlinii, 900mm tall, has white or blue star-like flowers and C. semiplena has semi double creamy flowers on sturdy stems.

Other summer bulbs of interest are Fritillaria persica ‘Adiyaman’ which stands between 800mm – 1.2 metres tall and in May produces unusual, deep -hanging bells of rich plum-purple. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is probably the best of the summer flowering ‘snowflakes’ standing 300-500mm tall and has wide- hanging white bells in April and May.

If you are in a frost free area or able to lift your bulbs to protect them from winter frost, then Watsonia is a colourful spike- flowered border plant. And why not go for a touch of the exotic with a Canna or two? (better make that 3 at least). Summer flowering bulbs are already available to buy online through various well-known nursery companies and should soon start appearing in your local Garden Centre or nursery. Plant them in the spring as the soil begins to warm up.

Further information:

BBC gardening guide – summer flowering bulbs

Foxtail Lilies

How to grow Eremurus robustus

How to grow Eremurus stenophyllus AGM

Old School Gardener