Harvesting Heirloom Bulbs

By Jay White, Publisher

Several years ago I was listening to a talk by Dr. William (Bill) Welch. He was professing the virtues of gardening with Southern heirloom plants.

During the question-and-answer section of his talk, he was asked what plant he would recommend to a new gardener who was starting a garden. Without pausing he said, “Crinums.” The questioner asked back, “Why crinums?” Without batting an eye, Dr. Welch responded, “Because as far as I know, no crinum has ever died!”

That response has stuck with me for years. At the time, I thought he was just making a joke (and it was a good one). However, as I have become a more experienced gardener I have come to realize that Dr. Welch’s response was not a joke at all. In fact, it was a profound observation about some of the most durable and reliable flowering perennials available to the Texas gardener — heirloom flower bulbs.

While Dr. Welch recommended crinums to the new gardener, he could have just as well suggested many other heirloom flower bulbs that have been blooming in Texas and the Gulf South for 200 or more years.

Heirloom narcissus bulbs ready for replanting | Vego Garden

 Heirloom narcissus bulbs ready for replanting

Bulbs have been a part of Southern gardens since our Spanish and European ancestors began creating gardens in the Americas. Through the centuries, gardeners, botanists and horticulturists have selected and bred the many varieties of amaryllis, daffodils, jonquils, narcissus, spider lilies, oxbloods and several other bulbs that are now the reliable staples of Southern gardens that we call heirloom bulbs.

Adapted to Texas

As we all know, the Texas climate can be tough on plants, and bulbs are no exception. Have you ever planted a bag of daffodils purchased at big-box store? If so, they probably bloomed that first year and then you never heard from them again.

Most probably, your big-box bulbs only bloomed once because they did not get enough chilling hours over the short Texas winter. To develop properly, bulbs (just like apples and peaches) need to spend a specific number of hours between 32 and 45 degrees.

Because your big-box bulbs most probably came from The Netherlands, they require more chilling hours than our short winters could provide. While they had enough carbohydrates stored to bloom once, they did not receive enough chilling hours to live until the second year.

However, just like apples and peaches, there are varieties of flowering bulbs that can thrive on fewer chilling hours. This diversity in these species means that Texans can grow certain varieties of apples, peaches and the large selection of flowering bulbs that, through the years, have become known as heirloom bulbs.

Some Crinum bulbs get quite large | Vego Garden

Some bulbs will get quite large

Botanically speaking, a bulb is a short stem with fleshy leaves or leaf bases that function as food storage during dormancy. A true bulb has its leaves, stems and immature flower inside its fleshy shell — each of which you can usually identify when a bulb is cut in half.

All of these structures connect in a specialized part of the bulb called the basal plate. While the bulb gets its durability and characteristic shape from the fleshy “leaves” that store the carbohydrates, the basal plate is arguably the most important part of the bulb.

The basal plate is generally located at the base of the bulb. The leaf bases and stem connect to the top of this vegetative structure and the roots grow from the bottom. Most bulbs will not regrow if the basal plate is damaged. So you must take great care to avoid damaging it when harvesting your bulbs.

Blooming bulbs

Texas gardeners have a large number of heirloom bulb species available to them.

Bulbs are successful in our climate because they have the ability to grow and reproduce when climatic conditions are favorable and then go dormant when conditions are not.

Bulbs bloom each year in response to a moisture, temperature or daylength trigger. Typically, they send up a bloom that is followed by foliage. The foliage will stay in place for six weeks to three months. During that time the foliage recharges the carbohydrates that the bulb will need to bloom again next year. In addition, it also gives the bulb the strength it needs to reproduce.

Heirloom bulbs have been grown here so long that they have naturalized. This means that they have been so successful that they now behave like native plants.

These naturalized heirloom bulbs have mastered the art of reproduction. Some of them reproduce only through division (narcissus, lycoris and rhodophiala), but others can produce seeds and reproduce by division. Plant one this year and in a few years you will have a large clump of beautiful bulbs that you can divide for more plants or to share with friends.

When to harvest

Because heirloom bulbs reproduce so readily they will eventually form large clumps of bulbs that are incredibly beautiful, especially in mass (see “In Greg’s Garden: A Field of Dreams” in the Jan./ Feb. 2016 Texas Gardener).

Despite the beauty of a mature clump of narcissus, lycoris, amaryllis or crinums, you may want to harvest (divide) these clumps from time to time.

I have a clump of ‘Grand Primo’ narcissus in a bed outside my back door. Through the years they multiplied to the point that they had overtaken their planting area. In addition, as my other plantings matured, they began to grow over the narcissus. So, I dug them up and divided them. Now I still have a beautiful clump of ‘Grand Primo’ by my backdoor plus several other large clumps by the front door and in my side yard.

Heirloom flower bulbs: Spring and fall

With the exception of crinums (which we will cover in their own section), heirloom flower bulbs are separated into two categories — spring-blooming and fall-blooming.

Spring-blooming bulbs consist primarily of flowers in the narcissus genus (narcissus, jonquils, daffodils, paperwhites and snowflakes). Hardy amaryllis (Hippeastrum x johsonii) and grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum) are also spring bloomers that do well in parts of our state.

Favorite fall bloomers include several plants in the lycoris genus: spider lily (L. radiata, L. aurea and L. squamigera) and oxbloods (Rhodophiala bifida). When dividing these bulbs it is best to dig them in the season opposite of their bloom time. This will ensure that the bulb is dormant when it is harvested. Bulbs harvested during their dormant period store better and rebloom the first year after replanting.

While you should harvest bulbs when they are dormant, the reality is it can often be hard to harvest during those best periods.

Fall-blooming bulbs are dormant when it is cold and muddy (December through February) and spring-blooming bulbs go dormant in June, July and August. Who wants to be outside in July trying to dig flower bulbs out of the hard black clay that many of us call soil? Even if your bulbs are in a nice sandy loam (and you decide to brave the heat), where are you going to dig?

Dormant bulbs have no foliage. There is literally no trace of the plant on the top of the soil. So, unless you thought ahead and put out markers when the plant was blooming, you and the bulbs are going to have to play a little hide-and-seek when it is time to dig.

Luckily for us, the traits that make bulbs incredibly tough and reliable bloomers also make them fairly flexible when it comes to when and how we harvest them.

How to harvest

Jay White Texas Gardener digging bulbs | Vego Garden

Author Jay White digging bulbs in his garden

The first step in digging bulbs is finding them. If you are going to dig while they still have some foliage, or if the clump was previously marked, this is not a problem.

After several years of gardening, I have finally accepted the fact that I am not organized enough to mark the bulbs that I want to move. So this year, I took a tip from my kids and took pictures of the blooming plants with my cell phone. Now, when it is time to move my Lycoris aurea in the spring, I have a photographic clue to guide my digging.

Bulbs that have been in one place for a long time can be buried fairly deep and the clumps can be fairly large in circumference. While bulbs can survive being dug just about any time of the year, they do not like being damaged. If you cut through the bulb’s basal plate during harvest, the bulb will die. Also, damaged bulbs are susceptible to rot during storage or if replanted immediately. For this reason, I recommend taking a little extra care when digging them.

When I dig bulbs, I place the blade of my shovel into the ground at least 12 inches from where I think the center of the clump is. I dig all the way around the clump in a way that will create a bowl-shaped mound of dirt. Once I have cut the ground I turn over the bowl-shaped mound.

In soft soils like sand and loams, this is generally enough to make the soil fall away from the bulbs. In heavier, or wet, soils you may need to pick up the clump and drop it to free the bulbs from the soil.

Once the soil is loosened up, it is time to remove the bulbs. How you handle them at this point will depend on whether you harvest the bulb when it is dormant or when it still has some foliage attached to it.

If harvesting during dormant times, you can separate and move all bulbs and bulblets to a cool, dry place for later planting. Bulbs can be safely stored for three or four months before replanting. While they can be stored for longer periods, their viability decreases as their moisture content goes down.

While I do not recommend harvesting blooming bulbs, you can realistically harvest them anytime after their flowers have disappeared and the bulb is in full foliage.

If harvesting at this time, I recommend digging and replanting as soon as possible. Harvesting while the plant is actually growing will definitely shock it. To reduce the shock, I cut the foliage of the bulb in half and replant in the next couple of days. Bulbs moved in this manner may not bloom next year.

If you can harvest bulbs during the best times of the year, you should. Properly-dug bulbs store better and bloom the first season after replanting. However, if someone is willing to give me a bunch of bulbs at the wrong time of the year, I am going to move them and wait patiently for their next bloom.


When you are ready to replant your bulbs, the rules are fairly easy.

Plant the root scar down and the pointy side up. While that sounds simple, it is not always so clear cut. Some bulbs, especially smaller ones, can be almost round and they may not have any roots attached. Do not worry too much. Just plant the bulb on its side. The bulb will bloom and over time it will “right itself” in the soil.

Also, never plant a bulb more than three bulb-widths deep. I plant mine so that the entire bulb has about an inch of soil over it.

As we have discussed, bulbs are remarkably adaptable. On several occasions I have dug bulbs from a nice loamy soil and moved them to my thick black clay, where they have done well. I have dug them properly, then stored them too long, and they still bloomed. About the only thing I know that will truly kill bulbs is planting them in a soil with the wrong pH.

While I love daffodils and jonquils, there are not many that will grow for me year after year. Many of the yellow members of the narcissus genus need soil that is more acidic than the clays and silts of Central Texas.

While I love the fields of jonquils and daffodils that sprout up all over East Texas in the spring, I cannot duplicate the look in my own field; my soil is just not acidic enough.

If you are new to bulbs, I suggest visiting with local gardeners, master gardeners or your county extension office before spending a lot of money on bulbs that may not last in your area.

Harvesting crinums

Crinums are incredibly popular with gardeners in the South. They have been extensively crossbred and some bulbs sell for more than $100 each.

While I do not have any that cost $100, I do have several that have been shared with me by generous gardeners throughout the years. Most of my crinums came from the collection of my friend Cynthia Mueller of College Station. I am a crinum fan because she has been so generous with both her knowledge and her plants.

Crinums are a considerably different type of bulb than the amaryllis, narcissus, lycoris and rhodophialas we have been discussing.

First, crinums bloom almost year-round. Next, older crinums can develop incredibly large bulbs. If you are going to dig up crinums, you want to eat a very good breakfast and bring several shovels. I am not kidding. It is not unusual to break a shovel, or two, while trying to dig out old established crinums.

Finally, you don’t have to be quite as careful when digging a crinum. If you accidentally push your shovel through the basal plate of a crinum, do not fret. Replant both pieces and there is a very good chance both of them will create healthy, new plants.

Crinums do not really go dormant in most of Texas. Crinums bloom several times throughout the year and they do not lose their foliage. Because of this, it is best to harvest crinums in the dead of winter. Once again, if you can’t harvest at the right time, harvest when you can, cut back the foliage by half and replant immediately.

I truly love my heirloom bulbs. They are the first bulbs to bloom for me in the spring — I have a narcissus (N. italicus) that blooms every January — and the last to bloom in the fall. While they produce a wide array of stunningly beautiful flowers, I can count on them to return in my beds year after year.

Though heirloom bulbs cost a little more than those you find at the big-box stores, they bloom in our driest years and they will come back again for our wettest. They are extremely pest resistant and they reproduce readily. Though they may cost a little more to purchase, they are an investment that will reward you for years to come.

Even though Dr. Welch joked that no crinum has ever died, my experience has shown me that very few heirloom amaryllis, daffodils, jonquils, narcissus, spider lilies or oxbloods have ever died either.

 Large crinum bulb

The author paid $15 for this ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ crinum bulb. However, this bulb will bloom forever and divide regularly to provide additional plants for his beds and borders.

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