Twenty five ago I spent a great deal of time digging out clumps of crocosmia (we called them montbretia then) from my first garden. They had to go – they were common and their burnt orange flowers were brash. In spite of my distaste for them at that point in my gardening life, Crocosmia have always been popular with gardeners. Many cultivars were lost during the Dig for Victory campaign during the Second World War but there are still some stunning ones available. Most of us, including myself, have now come to value their bright-yellow and fiery-red late-season colours which, with loud dahlias and bold cannas, have played their part in the autumn pyrotechnics that have lit up our gardens in recent years.
But I’m as fickle as the next gardener and am beginning to tire of plants that dazzle. I find myself wanting something more gentle, more subtle, in the garden at this time of year. My gardening has come full circle (again), so the bright boys are being pulled out as I attempt to make the garden more restrained and delicate. In place of the crocosmias are going one of its relatives, another plant that used to go under the name of montbretia, Tritonia: specifically Tritonia disticha ssp. rubrolucens. A mouthful of a name for a very delicate plant.
A South African bulb, Tritonia disticha has been grown in Europe since the 18th century but was usually considered too tender for planting out and was thus relegated to the greenhouse. But, either as a result of changing climates or of the adventurousness of gardeners, they can now be grown outside.
The foliage of the plant is narrow, almost grass-like and at the end of August the first wiry stems appear from the centre of the leaves: masses of them branching out and each full of buds. The flowers, and there are lots of them, are dainty, soft-pink bells that will continue until the warm autumn days finally give way to cold nights and frost. At the base of each petal is a small yellow tear that, for me, resonates with the mood of the season far more effectively than more strident flowers.
How to grow
In the wild Tritonias grow in meadows that are moist during the summer when the plants are flowering and dry during their dormant period in winter. To grow well in Britain they need a well drained, rich soil. Before planting dig well-rotted manure, compost or any organic matter you can get hold of into the soil. As well as providing lots of nutrients this will help the soil retain moisture during the summer when buds are forming. Poor soil will result in lots of foliage and few flowers, so its worth putting effort into making the soil as fertile as possible before planting.
After three or four years clumps of Tritonia will become congested, resulting in poor flowering. Dig your clump up and pull the corms apart. New corms will have formed on the top of older ones and you should break these off and throw away the old, woody ones. A quick twist of the corms will usually break them apart cleanly. The best time to do this is late in the Autumn after they have finished flowering. However, if the Autumn is very wet (as, increasingly, they seem to be) it would be better leave the job until the Spring.
If you don’t have well-drained soil you can grow Tritonias in pots but make sure they are kept well-watered from August onwards. Store the pots somewhere dry during the winter.