Alternatives to Trendy Plants

When thinking about irises, gardeners—and all garden groupies—envision the tall bearded varieties. Decades of hybridizers have tweaked these plants to produce luscious colors, fascinating forms, great productivity and disease resistance. They are excellent plants that are easy to grow and great assets in the landscape.

The same can be said of roses and tulips, which include popular garden selections that have been hybridized through multiple generations to produce qualities that qualify them as “super plants.”

The hybridizers are creative, imaginative, and extraordinarily painstaking and patient as they build upon past successes and pursue horticultural perfection, the definition of which continues to evolve.

Home gardeners who enjoy these plants can be drawn into the endless process of acquiring the latest introductions featured in each season’s mail-order catalog photos. Each offers something a bit different and better than its predecessors.

For many gardeners, this process can be absorbing and defining of the essence of gardening.

Consider an adventuresome alternative: stepping off the bandwagon and exploring the vast array of related, less fashionable plants that can be equally beautiful with a more natural look, often relatively free of pests and diseases, and invariably less expensive.


When it comes to roses, look for the “own-root” selections. These are plants that are grown from cuttings and do have developed their own roots, rather than being grafted on a rootstock such as “Dr. Huey.” These are often historic varieties or stable hybrids. The advantages of own-root roses over grafted roses include greater cold-hardiness, shapelier (because they do not grow from a graft), and complete absence of rootstock suckers. Mail-order sources of own-root roses include Heirloom Roses, High County Gardens, David Austin and others.

Photo of a Pink Rose Blossom

Rosa ‘Mary Rose’ by David Austin Roses


Alternatives to the tall bearded hybrids include the beardless varieties. The America Iris Society identifies many species of breadless irises, organized in several series within subsections. For an excellent overview of beardless irises, search for Ben Hager’s article, “Beardless Iris,” on the Pacific Horticulture magazine website.

One series listed by the AIS, Series Californicae, may be of particular interest to readers of this column. Most of the species in this series are referred to collectively as Pacific Coast Irises (PCIs), because they are native to and grow well in coastal habitats, like the Monterey Bay area. Right now is the ideal time to plant PCIs.

Local hybridizer, Joe Ghio, has created many new PCI cultivars and won numerous national awards for his introductions. His catalog of both tall bearded irises and PCIs is available for $3 from Bay View Gardens, 1201 Bay St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.


The several groups of hybrid tulips include Darwins, Triumphs, Fosterianas, Gregeiis, Kaufmannias, Viridifloras, and others. These groups include many hundreds of cultivars that could overwhelm the most avid collector. All produce uniquely gorgeous blossoms, require a winter dormant period for reliable bloom, and attract gophers. Alternatives to these very popular plants, especially for areas without several weeks of cold weather, are called the species tulips. These are “the little bulbs that have given rise to all the big showy hybrids.” These smaller plants are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, or Asia Minor, and grow fine in the Monterey Bay area.

Species tulips that are good selections for the Monterey Bay area’s moderate climate include Tulip sylvestris (Europe), T. bakeri “Lilac Wonder” (Crete), T. clusiana var. chrysantha and “Lady Jane” (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), and T. saxatilis (Crete).

Most mail-order sources of tulips, daffodils and other geophytes usually also offer species tulips. Look for them in the catalogs of McClure & Zimmerman, Van Engelen, Brett & Becky’s Bulbs, John Scheepers, and others.


Garden centers have tons of tulips available for planting in the fall. There are countless hybrids on the market, including a seemingly endless parade of new introductions.

Tulips provide undeniably gorgeous blossoms, but they also present gardeners with the chill requirement, called vernalization. To set blooms, tulip bulbs must be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for six-to-eight weeks.

Tulips originate around the Mediterranean Basin and in central China, particularly in mountainous areas with climates like that of the Monterey Bay area, but with cooler winters that provide sufficient chill during the plant’s dormant period.

For gardening in climates with soil temperatures that provide a sufficient chill period, tulips are reliable perennials that grow, multiply and bloom with little difficulty.

For climates with more moderate winter weather, such as the Monterey Bay area, vernalization requires refrigeration. This can be provided by the supplier, or by the individual gardener, usually in the family refrigerator or second unit.

Apples and other fruit releases ethylene gas, which is harmful to tulip bulbs, so keep fruits away from the tulips.

After tulips have bloomed, and their leaves have yellowed, the gardener must lift the bubs and chill them again to promote blooms in the following season.

The easier alternative for many gardeners is to purchase already-chilled tulip bulbs, and treat them like annuals. Many mail-order nurseries will chill tulip bulbs and ship them to customers at planting time.

There are a couple other choices for creating a early spring display in the garden.

First, some species tulips require less chilling during their dormant period. Tulip species in this category include Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’, Tulipa clusiana (Lady Tulips), T. saxatilis (Candia Tulips) and T. sylvestris (Florentine Tulips). Species tulips have smaller blooms and shorter stalks than hybridized tulips, but they produce demure, colorful blooms. The plants are still great garden perennials that do not need lifting and chilling every dormant period. I will plant a few species tulip bulbs this year to learn more about this option.

The other choice is to plant spring-blooming bulbs that do not require vernalization. There are many bulbs in this category, starting with the narcissus, which is most popular. Others include allium, colchicum, crinum, crocus, gloriosa lily, hyacinth, kaffir lily, muscari, snowflake, spider lily, and watsonia. Most of these are members of the large lily family (Liliaceae), which also includes the tulip.

Now is the time to produce a display of color for your spring garden.


Brent and Becky’s Bulbs – species tulips

John Scheepers – species tulips

Willow Creek Gardens – species tulips

Pacific Bulb Society – information on species tulips (not sales)

Old Farmer’s Almanac – planting and growing tulips