Among the many spring-flowering bulbs offered in autumn, foxtail lilies are the most intriguing and, like some lagers, reassuringly expensive! It is wrong to call them bulbs since they are not bulbs at all but fleshy roots. They certainly look weird, with a growing bud and spokes of thick roots radiating from the centre. Variously described as resembling an octopus or a spider they are unlike anything else you might buy and plant.
The cost of these vary with the species or hybrid but all produce a tuft of narrow foliage, in spring and a tall spike of small starry flowers in May or June. Colours vary from white, through pink to yellow and orange and heights from 1-2.5m. They are remarkably beautiful.
To succeed with eremurus you need to get a few things right. In the wild, they are called desert candles (they come from Eastern Europe into Asia) so you can tell that they need well-drained soil! They need sun and a soil that is not waterlogged in winter – they do not need desert conditions as such. They also like a rich soil and will not do well if starved. Most importantly, those weird, horizontal roots need to grow undisturbed so, once planted, you should avoid digging and forking around them and damaging those thick roots. For this reason they are good planted among roses. They benefit from the feed the roses will get and there should not be too much root disturbance.
Perhaps the most beautiful is E. robustus with pale pink flowers on stems 2m or more high. Smaller, and more affordable, is the orange ‘Cleopatra’.
When planting, dig out a large, wide hole. Fork in some compost or manure in the base and spread out the roots and cover with soil so the bud is just below the soil surface. Then mark the spot so you know where they are planted. The shoots will appear in spring.
Eremurus are not perfect for everyone and they are not the easiest of plants to please. The roots dry out in storage so it is best to buy and plant them as soon as possible. If those fleshy roots are shrivelled the plants will take longer to establish and, though they will grow, they may not bloom the first year. But nothing else in the garden looks quite like them and they are very impressive.
Jobs for the week
Look for reversion on shrubs
As we head for winter, evergreen shrubs will become increasingly important in the garden. Many of these are variegated. Variegated plants are usually mutated shoots and they can ‘revert’ and produce green shoots identical to the plant they mutated from. These all-green shoots will grow more quickly than the variegated plant. This is because the white or yellow parts of the leaves cannot make food to support the plant and so are a burden on the rest of the plant, reducing its vigour. So if a green branch appears, it will grow more rapidly and can overwhelm the plant. Two green shoots can be seen on the variegated euphorbia above – and you can see they are more vigorous. It isn’t just evergreens that are prone to reversion. One of the worst offenders is Acer platanoides ‘Drummondii’, the variegated Norway Maple, which is usually seen with all-green branches among the white-edged leaves.
If you see reverted growths, cut them back to the source.
As we clear up and harvest crops we can identify problems. One of the most annoying is onion white rot. This is a disease in the soil and, although the onions may seem OK at first they may die during summer or they may make bulbs but as you harvest them you find that the roots are rotted and the baseplate and outer rings of the bulbs are rotten too. Onion white rot is not a disease you can beat and you will have to avoid growing onions in that soil for five years at least. And that includes leeks and chives.
For this reason, if you do not have the disease, never accept open-ground-grown onions or leeks that may have come from soil that is infected. Grow your own plants or only buy plants grown in cell trays in clean compost.