Arizona and Israel have some climatic and botanic similarities. Israel is lovely in spring — the hillsides covered with a plethora of bright flowers. Israel has a Mediterranean climate, with rains in the cooler winter months, followed by months of no rain, similar to Arizona. While some of the Israeli spring wildflowers are annuals, many are bulbs.
Technically speaking, a bulb is one type of underground storage organ, composed of swollen, fleshy leaves, like an onion. Plants have developed other underground storage devices based on stems, including rhizomes, tubers, and corms. For ease of discussion, I call them all “bulbs” in this article.
The charming thing about bulbs is that you can plant them and forget about them — if you get the right ones (I will come back to this). Plant bulbs in a flowerbed, or for a springtime surprise, do as I do, and wander around the yard and stick some at the edges of shrubs, near the rose bushes, under the citrus trees — just about anywhere I have already made the soil easy to dig into. You can also plant bulbs in containers that are more than 18 inches deep. Plant some annuals like pansies on top; about the time the pansies fade, the bulbs will emerge.
Proper drainage is essential for bulbs. Sandy soils are ideal, so if your soil is more clay, you will need to amend the soil. To amend, simply mix in organic matter such as compost or peat moss. Sand or perlite will help too. Amending the soil is the hardest part of growing anything in Arizona, but once you have loosened the soil the first time, planting anything will be easier. Amending the soil also improves the area for later planting of other colorful plants.
In our area, bulbs with hot climate ancestors will do better than their European cousins. Thus, desert tulips such as Israeli or Turkish (wild) tulips will do better than Dutch tulips. Dutch bulbs have been bred for the past five centuries to thrive in cold, wet climates.
Not all sun is created equal. In Arizona, our sun can heat and dry the soil in excess of what many bulbs can tolerate. Though the bulbs will be dormant in summer, it just means they are hibernating, and they can still dry out and die. Ignore labels written for East Coast terrain if you want your bulbs to reappear every year. Think about the summer sun as you plant your bulbs.
For the bulbs found in northern Israel and the Galilee, find spots with full shade to filtered light. Bulbs for shady areas include Agapanthus (queen of the Nile), Crinum, Crocus, Cyclamen, Freesia, Gladiolus, Lycoris, Ornithogalum (star of Bethlehem), Oxalis, Sparaxis, Ipheion (starflower), and Tigridia. All prefer summer shade in Arizona growing conditions.
For the bulbs of southern Israel and in the Negev, full sun to part shade is fine. This includes Allium, Amaryllis, Anemone, Apios, Crocus, Daffodil, Gladiolus, Iris (all kinds), Narcissus (paperwhites), Oxalis, Ranunculus (buttercup), Scilla (squill), wild tulip (also called Turkish tulip), and Zephyranthes. If a bulb is on both these lists, this means they will tolerate about a half day of summer sun.
Finally, planting depth is important to bulbs. The best rule of thumb is to plant the bulb two to three times as deep as it is tall. Thus a 2-inch bulb (from dried rootlets to pointy tip) should be planted with the growing tip 4 to 6 inches below the surface of the soil.
Plant some of these bulbs this fall, so that next spring, around Passover, you can enjoy a trace of Israel in your yard. It won’t quite be “next year in Jerusalem,” but it will be a touch closer!
Jacqueline Soule, Ph.D., has been writing about gardening in our region for over three decades. Her recent books, “Month by Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico” (Cool Springs Press, 2016) and “Southwest Fruit & Vegetable Gardening” (Cool Springs Press, 2014), are available in local botanical gardens and some nurseries. You can also follow her on the web at
www.gardeningwithsoule.com and www.southwestgardening.com.