Everything you need to know about erythroniums

Words & Pictures: Val Bourne

Pictures: Penny Nunn

Erythroniums look so exotic in the woodland border with their elegant flowers, hanging like Tiffany lamps, above handsome foliage. They perform in late-spring, often as fern crosiers unfurl, and most of them are hardy and easily grown. There are between 24 to 30 species and most are woodlanders, flowering before deciduous trees come into leaf.

They are found in higher areas of Eurasia, in the western states of North America and on the eastern side of America – always in cool conditions. Most do better in cool, damp springs because they hold their flowers for longer.

They all need careful handling, because the white, waxy bananashaped bulbs lack any protective sheath. How to plant and care for erythroniums. Handle them really carefully and plant them into well prepared shady sites that retain moisture.

Lift them carefully when dividing, as the foliage dies down in late-July, and replant the brittle bulbs into friable soil. Soon you’ll have large clumps. The trick with erythroniums is to keep them in leaf for as long as possible by watering them: the same is true for trilliums

Buy from Penny Nunn either as plants and plug plants or dry bulbs in late May

Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ AGM

If you’ve never grown erythroniums before start with the hybrid ‘Pagoda’, a form with Dresden-yellow flowers that open wide above mainly green foliage.

This older variety, bred in Holland by Walter Blom and Son, has been around since the 1950s and it’s trouble-free, although it does lack the handsome foliage of others.

Despite that it’s still useful in wilder areas, or larger gardens, woven through contrasting blue flowers. These might include the wonderful Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’, the miniature cobalt-blue bulb – Scilla siberica and Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’.

This erythronium is ten days earlier than many and can follow on from snowdrops, or mingle with hellebores, or act as a preamble to trilliums. Readily available from Peter Nyssen.

Erythronium californicum ‘White Beauty’ AGM

The creamy flowers have six upturned petals that fly outwards to form a wide lily shape.

Seen from above the petals display a cool hint of green as they meet the stem, catching the same glint of green found in the anthers suspended below the flower. Gaze inside and there’s a brown necklace of dots that tones with the handsome mottled foliage.

It all goes to make ‘White Beauty’ a work of beauty and perhaps that level of visual perfection puts gardeners off, somehow indicating a ‘high maintenance’ plant. However ‘White Beauty’ is easy to grow as long as you find a cool, sheltered place (away from strong winds) in dappled shade. And don’t let the bulbs dry out! That may mean watering in dry springs, although like all bulbous plants they will hate cold, wet soil in winter.

Readily available from Peter Nyssen.

Erythronium ‘Harvington Snowgoose’

The nurseryman Hugh Nunn, famous for his Harvington strain of oriental hellebores, is also breeding and growing erythroniums. ‘Harvington Snowgoose’ is a selected seedling from E. californicum and it holds its white flowers well above the maroon-mottled foliage.

The name ‘Snowgoose’ was chosen to reflect the feather-edged petals, rather than the flowers, and this tall erythronium has robust stems that are three to four inches taller than the foot-high ‘White Beauty’. The narrow petals of ‘Harvington Snowgoose’ twist and turn, as if in flight, and the green shading on the back of the petals is more pronounced, as is the yellow shading inside so it’s more dramatic in every way.

Available as dry bulbs from Twelve Nunns from the end of May, a nursery started by Hugh’s daughter Penny.

Erythronium ‘Harvington Wild Salmon’

Hugh Nunn has also developed daintier pink-flowered forms using E. revolutum, a Pacific Coast species found in a region that stretches from southern British Columbia to northwestern California. ‘Harvington Wild Salmon’ has starry, salmon-pink flowers that dance above mottled leaves.

This species, known as the pink fawn lily, occurs in swampy areas so they love some moisture. They also flower later, about three weeks after ‘Pagoda’, and they are tall and elegant. I keep them away from the yellows and like to plant them close to green-flowered double hellebores and Solonon’s Seal, to avoid any pink and yellow clashes.

Available as dry bulbs from Twelve Nunns from the end of May, a nursery started by Hugh’s daughter Penny.

Erythronium ‘Hidcote Beauty’

My most treasured erythronium of all, with starry mauve-pink flowers that rise above green leaves, neatly scaled in silvery white.

This very robust, tall erythronium, originally spotted by Hugh in the famous Gloucestershire garden, is the most vigorous erythronium Hugh Nunn knows.

The substantial mottled leaves are an outstanding feature and in April it is often for sale at Hidcote Manor Gardens in Gloucestershire. You may need to order this one, as it’s new. This is bold and big, so let it shine with plenty of space to show off.

Erythronium dens-canis

This species, commonly known as the Dog’s Tooth Violet due to its fang-shaped, ivory-white bulbs, grows in a wide area that stretches from Europe and into Japan.

The elliptical leaves are highly decorative, with chocolate blotches, and the whole plant is more diminutive in scale reaching only six inches in height. The cyclamen-like flowers have swept-back petals that almost like a squid in motion. It’s one of the first to flower, often in March, and once established, it will return reliably year after year.

What to do with seedlings

It is worth deadheading named forms so that inferior seedlings do not overtake the choicer named varieties. I find these are harder to establish than the hybrids, because they like moisture in spring followed by a summer bake. They seem to do best under the lee of deciduous shrubs and trees.

Erythronium revolutum ‘Knighthayes Pink’

‘Knightshayes Pink’ is another named form from a famous garden and both Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire and Knightshayes Court in Devon, both National Trust, boast good displays in April.

This one originated at Knightshayes Court near Tiverton in Devon, an area originally planted up by Lord and Lady Heathcoat Amory from the 1960s onward. Lady Amory, nee Joyce Wethered, was a professional lady golfer who won the British Amateur Championship in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1929, the English Championship from 1920 to 24. She also captained the Curtis Cup team against United States in 1932 and travelled widely in America. She was influenced by American wildflowers, including erythroniums, and the this hybrid of E. revolutum was almost certainly a self-set seedling.

‘Knighthayes Pink’ self seeds freely when happy, gently spreading itself around, and the foliage is a mottled mixture of maroon and green.