Unlike Longfellow, some gardeners will see the bells’ petals rather than hear their peals on Christmas Day—the flowering type of Christmas bells, that is! They are summer-blooming plants. That may puzzle you until you recall that Christmas comes during summer in the southern hemisphere. And one type of that holiday’s bells, Sandersonia aurantiaca, hails from South Africa, the other—Blandfordia—from Australia.
There are a few similarities between the two. Both reach heights in the 2 to 3-feet range, prefer sandy, well-drained, and acidic soil in partial sun, usually bloom in their third year when grown from seed, and only are hardy to USDA zone 9.
Sandersonia , whose 1 1/2-inch long yellow-orange bells actually look more like lanterns, also has been called the Chinese lantern lily. Its foliage does, in fact, resemble that of a lily. Because its flowers can survive up to three weeks in water, it has become popular for bouquets. Considered a climber due to the tendrils at the end of its leaves, Sandersonia will attach itself to supports or nearby plants. Keep in mind that it contains the same colchicine as does autumn crocuses, which renders it toxic.
In areas where Sandersonia isn’t hardy, you can grow it as an annual by planting a few of its V-shaped corms horizontally 2 to 3 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches part, in the ground or in a 10-inch pot. Because those corms rot easily, it’s a good idea to position them inside a layer of sand with well-drained potting soil above and below.
The tubers should sprout within two to three weeks and bloom six weeks to two months later. The plants’ top-growth will die back in autumn, after which you can store the tubers in barely moist peat moss at temperatures around 50 degrees Fahrenheit over the winter.
If you have the patience to grow Sandersonia from seeds, soak those seeds for a day before draining them and placing them in the refrigerator—in damp paper towels or damp peat moss—for three or four months. Afterwards, sow them in a sandy seed-sowing mix, barely covering them with that mix. Keep them at temperatures in the 70s until they sprout, probably in one to two months.
The Blandfordias, with grassy-looking foliage and truly bell-shaped flowers, include four species: cunninghamii, grandiflora, nobilis, and punicea. Their waxy blooms most often are pictured as red with yellow “lips” (lower edges), but can come in any combination of red and yellow, including pure pinkish-red and pure yellow. True to its name grandiflora boasts the showiest flowers, about 2 1/2 inches long, and makes between four and ten of those blooms on each stem. The flowers of the other species only are about 1 1/2 inches long, with cunninghamii’s sometimes growing larger, but they can appear in clusters of as many as 20 to 30 blooms.
Because Blandfordias grow from rhizomes rather than bulbs and aren’t readily available in the U.S., you may need to sow them yourself should you want to try them. If you barely cover the seeds with a combination of seed-starting mix and sand and keep them at temperatures in the 70s Fahrenheit, they should take about three weeks to germinate. The seedlings grow slowly and probably won’t stand much taller than 2 inches after four months.
It’s best to pot or plant Blandfordias in soil that is at least two-thirds sand, because they are prone to root rot. Keep in mind, however, that they inhabit swampy areas in their native habitat and must never be allowed to dry out completely. Like Sandersonia, Blandfordias also can be stored at around 50 degrees over the winter, but should be kept slightly moist at all times. Otherwise, they may be ringing their own death knell!
Photos: The banner photo is by bonitin and the other Sandersonia photo by RosinaBloom, both from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles. The Blandfordia photo is by Peter [email protected] and the antique image from an 1818 issue of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.