Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cheerful Harlequin Flowers

Cheerful Harlequin Flowers put on a colorful show in any garden.  Their star-shaped flowers in a rainbow of bright colors are produced on 12 to 18 inch long stems in mid-spring to early summer.

The genus, Sparaxis (pronounced spa-RAKS-iss), includes about fifteen species native to the Cape Province of South Africa.  The name refers to the flower bracts which appear to be torn.  Sparaxis has been known at least since the 1800s, though a new species, Sparaxis maculosa, was discovered as late as 1988.  Sparaxis is a member of the Iridaceae, along with Ixia, another South African genus.  In fact, Ixia and Sparaxis have sometimes been confused.  Among their most obvious shared characteristics are corms, sword-like foliage and the flower arrangement on the stems. S. tricolor is the most readily available, though collections of mixed species are often offered for sale.

Depending on the species, flower centers have black centers, yellow centers, or a combination of both.  The leaves are very attractive, too, adding vertical interest to the garden.  You can plant them in spring anywhere directly in the ground or in containers.  If allowed to go to seed, sparaxis germinates readily and will produce lots of new plants.  The corms produce offshoots which can be divided during dormancy and replanted for a greater show the following year.

Sparaxis adds plenty of color to the garden.  Mix the corms amongst other perennials or annuals in free-form groupings.  They're perfect for bulb gardens and rock gardens, too.  Because the cut flowers are long-lasting, you'll want plenty of them in your cutting garden.  Sparaxis is drought-tolerant, too, so those who live in drought-prone zones or must limit their water use will love them.  This is definitely one to add to your list of plants for xeriscaping.

Sparaxis is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 9 through 11, but the corms are so inexpensive that gardeners in colder zones treat them as annuals. Space 6 inches to 12 inches apart and about 1-1/2 inches to 3 inches deep in full sun to partial shade in average, well-drained garden soil.  Field studies at the Institute of Ornamental Plants and Architecture of Landscape, Agricultural University of Lublin, Poland between 2000 and 2003 reported that, in general, early planting at 1-1/2 inches depth resulted in more flower spikes with more flowers per spike.  So my advice to you is to get them in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked.

Ideal pH for sparaxis ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.  Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  Follow the instructions.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If you prefer to skip the soil test, a fine all-around practice for spring-flowering bulbs is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Repeat the application when shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

When fall approaches and plants become dormant, gardeners in cooler climates can dig the corms and store them over winter.  To do so, remove dried foliage, brush soil from the corms, pack them in ground sphagnum or dry sawdust, and store them in a dark, well-ventilated area with a temperature range of 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Planted liberally, Sparaxis will make a wonderful show in your spring to summer garden. You'll be delighted with this beautiful South African native.

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