Frustrated with Freesias?

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Freesias: beautiful, fragrant, but not easy to grow in most areas.

Are you frustrated with freesias? Well, if you’re not, I certainly am. And even more frustrated when I click on websites that try to tell me how easy they are to grow. Of course, if you check on who’s writing the text, you quickly realize they are inevitably from Southern California, a lovely enough place, but most gardeners who read this blog are from much colder climates. So, if you’re from California, Florida, the Côte d’Azur, Australia, or anywhere else where temperatures rarely or barely dip below freezing in the winter, yeah, you certainly have the right to say “freesias are easy to grow”. For the rest of us, tain’t necessarily so.

But before going into why, here’s a description.

What is a Freesia?

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Double-flowered freesias.

The freesia commonly sold, Freesia x hybrida, is bulbous plant derived from wild species native to the Cape region of South Africa. It grows from a corm, producing a tuft of grasslike leaves. The white, yellow, orange, red, pink or purple trumpet flowers are very fragrant, an added attraction… at least, for those who can smell them. (About one person in ten is unable to smell the scent of freesias, a genetic trait of no apparent usefulness!)

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Organizers wisely hold the annual Hachijohima Freesia Festival in March, when the flowers are in bloom, rather than in summer, when they are underground.

The plant, like most bulbs, has a cyclical growth habit: it grows part of the year and goes fully dormant the rest, losing both leaves and stems and disappearing underground for months at a time. Unlike most bulbs, though, it blooms neither in spring or nor summer, but in the winter. Under the Mediterranean climate of the Cape, the wild species sleep during the hot, dry summers, then burst into growth and bloom under cool, moist winters. In similar Mediterranean climates, or even just in climates with fairly dry summers and mild winters with little frost, you can plant freesias outdoors in the fall (not in spring) and they will sprout and grow when the rains come, thus blooming in winter, from about Christmas to March in the Northern Hemisphere, depending on conditions and the cultivar chosen.

Freesias do not adapt to climates with hot, humid summers followed by cold, freezing winters. Of course, you could bring the corms indoors over the winter, protecting them from frost, but it’s still not easy growing freesias in climates where summers are hot rather than cool, totally opposite to the conditions they knew in the wild.

On Sale Where They Won’t Bloom

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Freesia corms packed for spring sales rarely give good results.

What brought this rant on (I do feel this piece is slipping from “blog” to “rant” status) is that my local garden center has put up a lovely display of summer bulbs, including dahlias, gladiolus, cannas, tuberous begonias and lots of other tender bulbs that will indeed grow well outdoors in colder climates during the summer. Then you bring them back indoors for the winter… and keep them going for decades, outdoors in the summer, indoors in the winter. Great plants. I approve.

But among the bulbs and corms and rhizomes on display now are packs of freesia corms. And they aren’t going to be so adaptable. Before they were shipped out, spring-sold freesia corms received a special cold treatment that is supposed to encourage them to bloom in the summer instead of the winter, but while that may work in areas with cool summers (Scandinavia, Labrador, Alaska, etc.), it doesn’t seem to make on iota of a difference in Chicago or Toronto where summers can be brutally hot.

In hot summer areas, it really doesn’t seem logical to sell freesia bulbs in spring. By the time they’re up and growing, it is really too warm for them outdoors, so they rarely bloom. And if they’re not going to bloom, why sell them?

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Freesias being forced as cut flowers in a cold greenhouse.

Ideally freesia bulbs would be sold in the fall with the stipulation they have to be used as houseplants. Pot them up in October, give them intense light, water them regularly, keep things cool (about 45˚ to 55˚F/ 7 to 12˚C at night and not more than 68˚F/18˚C during the day), and they’ll bloom in midwinter or early spring. The only problem is finding a spot that is both cool and very sunny in the average home (you might try a room with large windows that is only heated enough to keep it from freezing). Professional growers of cut flower freesias have it easier: they pot up freesias in the fall and grow them in barely heated greenhouses, resulting in abundant, easy bloom.

In spite of this, in my area at least, the corms are only sold in the spring, when you can’t grow them, never the fall, when you might be able to.

A Possible Solution

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Freesias started in pots indoors under cool conditions.

If you want at all costs try to grow freesias starting in the spring, it’s best to grow them in pots indoors. Pot them up as early in spring as you can to take advantage of naturally cooler conditions, placing about 4 or 5 corms in an 8-inch (20-cm) pot and barely covering them. Place the pot in front of a sunny but cool window. (You’ll find that freesias are among the rare indoor plants that actually appreciate air conditioning.) Water them normally, when the soil is dry to the touch. There is no need to fertilize them, as the corm already contains all the reserves necessary to ensure flowering. Staking will likely be needed: freesias are very floppy.

With any luck, the bulbs will flower about 12 weeks after they’re potted up. When they’re done, just toss them into the compost: given the stressful, unnatural conditions under which they were grown, freesia corms rarely bloom a second time.

The Easiest Solution

If you love freesias and live outside of a climate with mild winters, by far the easiest way of enjoying is to buy them as cut flowers. Let greenhouse growers bother with the exacting care they need and simply enjoy their lovely scented flowers!

 

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