Gardening Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

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!

 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

13 comments on “Frustrated with Freesias?

  1. Do you think Freesias would thrive in humid hot weather like Hawaii or El Salvador?

    • They aren’t going to like the heat, but if you buy cold-treated corms, they might bloom once. You’d likely need to replace them yearly, or try digging them up and storing the corms in the refrigerator after they go dormant. If you can get them inexpensively, they would be worth a try!

      • Thank you!! Mine are blooming now, but I do live in Los Angeles. Planted them five years ago and they bloom every year. Love their scent in the mornings and late afternoon.

      • You have the ideal climate. Cool enough, moist enough winter, baking hot summer. If I were a freesia, I’d be thrilled!

  2. I’m in Western NY, and I’ve kept the same Freesia bulbs blooming for the past three years. I keep them in a pot, outdoors, through spring and summer. They die down when it gets hot, and come back after it gets frosty (I think it was mid-October this year.) Then I bring them indoors, and place them in an unheated room near a south-facing window. I had a lot of trouble with aphids this year, but it was wonderful to have something fragrant blooming in January. The weird thing is, they started out with purple, yellow, and orange blooms, and now there’s only purple!

    • You’ve managed to supply a “cool but sunny” growing season, just what they want… and something most gardeners can’t supply. Congratulations on your ingenuity!

  3. Thank you for this article. It provided the true validation I needed. I live in Ottawa, ON and they’re very hard to grow, even indoors. 1/6 freesias will grow for me.

  4. Pat Savola

    Thanks a heap! I’m starting to wonder if the bulbs I’ve bought have even been heat treated to break dormancy. I try growing freesia every year as a gardening challenge and very few even sprout. The best results one year were potted corms planted in spring that sprouted in September and bloomed in winter. That led me to think it was a dormancy issue. However, it was only serious rabbit-holing that finally led me to heat treatment breaking dormancy and your rant. Much gratitude from Vancouver Island.

  5. Here’s how I grow freesias in the Chicago area where we seem to go from winter directly to summer in most years. I’ve been growing them off and on for 30+ years just to get a whiff of that sweet heavenly fragrance. I grow some on a cool south facing window during the winter months like many others have tried. I get a fair number of blooms since these are bulbs saved from prior years. New bulbs usually have better blooming. Aphids can sometimes be a problem, especially if they’ve hitched a ride indoors with other houseplants being brought inside for the winter. The downside is the leaves grow extra long when grown indoors making a big floppy mess, even if staked. The flowers are worth it though. After the foliage dries by June they go into the garage (in their pots) which can get quite hot during their summer dormancy (which they need). In fall the bulbs are sorted and planted again.

    The second method which can be a bit more work but generally provides good results is to plant them in the spring. However you will be trying to buy these as soon as they become available (early March here). You probably won’t be finding them at any reputable garden center since the horticulturists there know they are not a “summer” bulb for the reasons mentioned in the article. You will most likely find these at the big box stores like Home Depot or Walmart where they don’t know any better (thank goodness for me!!). Try to find bulbs that might show signs of sprouting so you know they’ve been heat treated to grow in the spring. I’ve had some that did sprout at all after planting so I know they were not treated. If so, no freesias for you! (Soup Nazi reference). Plant them EARLY in pots. If you follow the directions and plant them outside after all danger of frost has passed then again… no freesias for you! Try to leave the pots OUTSIDE in a protected south side of the house as long as the temperature stays ABOVE freezing. They actually like the warmth of a sunny day and the cold at night. At this time of year they may be moving in and out quite frequently. At night if the temps are forecast to drop below freezing then it’s better to put them in a cool frost free garage than a warm house.The reason you want them outside as much as possible is that for one they need the cool temps to initiate buds and second the foliage when grown outside will be much shorter and manageable (like you see when grown commercially for the florist trade). They may still need staking, especially when spiking. Most of their growing time will be spent under cool conditions giving them a good chance of success. By the time the real heat arrives in June they will be ready to bloom. If it’s really hot they can be brought inside where it’s air conditioned and to also enjoy their perfume.

    This year I planted mine the second week of March and they started spiking this past week. Our temps this spring have had wide fluctuations of warm and cold weather typical of the Midwest. Many mid 80’s in April followed by a week of cold temps and even a few nights of late frosts a few weeks ago. This past week has been in the upper 80’s and low 90’s. Also I finally decided the need to stake them today to help the flower stalks grow straighter, otherwise they were not too floppy. Once you get a whiff of that fragrance the little extra effort is well worth it!

  6. Thank you so much for this informative article! I made the mistake of planting freesia bulbs directly in the ground this past spring in zone 6B. I honestly wasn’t expecting anything to come up, as I had tried forcing some in a pot last winter with no luck. Well, a few days ago I noticed that they have broken dormancy and sent up foliage. The problem is that we will likely hit freezing temps before they get to the flowering stage. Do you think they would tolerate being dug up and replanted in a pot to bring indoors?

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