Suddenly, there they are. Slender stems rising out of the baked earth, nodding with half a dozen or more perfect, pink trumpets. The naked ladies flowers have made their annual appearance. Some time in late summer, the large, underground bulbs that have stored up nutrients and moisture for a couple of months send forth their fragrant flowers. These sexual organs, seductive to visiting pollinators and gardeners alike, will bloom in the sun for a few weeks, set and disperse their seeds, and then wither back into the mulch.
Native to South Africa, these geophytes (spending much of their lifetimes underground) are perfectly adapted to our warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. After the rainy season, some time in late winter or spring, they push out a profusion of strap-shaped, glossy green leaves. These leaves soak up the sun, converting light to sugar to starch and sequestering it beneath the surface of the soil, for just this moment.
To increase their numbers, dig the bulbs just after the blossoms fade and replant about one foot apart. Disturbing them at other times may damage the fragile root system. In fact, naked ladies dislike being moved and bloom best in old, crowded clumps. Bulbs can often be found at garage and plant society sales; bulb catalogs will also have them for sale. There are even some selections with deeper pink or purely white colors. Where frosts are mild, plant them with the neck (narrow top part of the bulb) just at or slightly above the soil level. Where frosts can linger or penetrate deeper into the soil, plant them about an inch below the soil in a protected spot. Forgiving of most soil problems, they will fail if soil stays soggy too long in winter.
Once you have established your naked lady patch, walk away and forget them. When they surprise you next year, pick a few to carry their sweet fragrance into the house, or just admire them in all their simple beauty from afar.
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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.