Peruvian Lily – Alstroemeria

For home decoration and for market-growers there is no more valuable cut flower than the more commonly called Peruvian Lily, named after the Swedish botanist, Baron Alstroemer. Over a period of years no flower makes a higher average price in the shops and what is more, where it is happy, it grows like a weed.

Some twenty years ago, I planted a hundred of the tuberous roots, rather like thin dahlia tubers, between two greenhouses, into compost accumulated by emptying old pots and boxes. This comprised a mixture of loam, sand, peat and old mushroom-bed compost and into this the roots were, I am ashamed to say, quickly thrown into holes made with a spade at 12-in. Intervals. The roots were planted 6 in. deep as, though the position was sheltered, the situation is fairly exposed in the north country. Towards the end of the summer, the roots being planted in March, a number of flowers were produced but nothing to direct much attention to them. Peruvian Lily - Alstroemeria

During winter they were more or less forgotten, more spent compost and some old mushroom-bed manure was thrown over the ground. Few weeds were noticed, but the bed seemed deserted of plant life until early June, and then, almost as if by magic, the whole bed was smothered with fresh green lily-like shoots and by the end of July there was a mass of blooms for cutting which continued until the early autumn. The bed has never been disturbed except to lift a few roots for friends, none of which I believe ever produced a flower. A number of shoots made their way under the walls of a greenhouse and flowered there during early July, but its habit of spreading has kept any plantings to the original bed which for twenty years exactly, has, apart from the year of planting, made a good profit during the later weeks of summer.

This is not intended to be a treatise on ‘How to Grow Alstroemeria for Profit’, rather is it intended to give some idea as to its temperamental habit – where it is happy it will grow like a weed, where it does not receive the conditions it enjoys, it may never flower at all. When it does do well it is a joy to have in the home, especially the modern shades of crushed strawberry and ripe corn and the rich deep bronze of the variety Dover Orange – and made into bunches it will be eagerly purchased by market salesmen or florists. For though it may flower in profusion it always appears to be an exotic flower. It will remain fresh for a considerable time in water and travels well when cut – nor does it ever seem to be overdone like many other late-summer flowers.

One small nurseryman of my acquaintance who for years grew hardy plants, planted up the whole of his two-acre nursery with alstroemeria and never regretted it. His soil is a light, gritty loam where the plants grow well. He cuts and rails his blooms to Covent Garden from mid-July until early September, working day and night for all his eggs are in one basket, but he has never regretted his action, though few would be brave enough to do likewise. There has never yet been a slump in the price of alstroemeria, it always makes a return that will show a useful profit and to those who are turning over their pleasure gardens to provide an additional income, I would recommend large alstoremeria plantings, provided a trial bed is first made. If the plant doesn’t like the soil or situation then nothing, or very little, can be done to change things.

SOIL AND SITUATION

Alstroemeria, like most tubers, revels in a gritty loam with which is incorporated plenty of humus. Leaf mould, peat or some old mushroom-bed manure is ideal, or some straw composted with an activator and mixed with dry poultry manure and some peat. Dig it deeply, 9 in. is not too deep and allow the bed a full month to settle down before planting the roots late in March.

Do not overdo the manure for excess nitrogen will cause too much leaf, too long stems and few flowers – but do add a z-oz. per square yard dressing of sulphate of potash, not only at planting-time but as a top dressing every March. The plant is as great a lover of potash as is the gooseberry and it not only encourages the formation of an abundance of bloom, but adds depth to the colour, a most important consideration for the salesman. The plant seems to do well on spent hops and I have seen a vigorous and profitable bed where wool shoddy has been used in limited amounts.

As to position, being a native of South America, the plant loves some sunshine, though it will grow well in partial shade. A bed planted along the side of a greenhouse or alongside the wall of an orchard where it may receive some sunshine but enjoy some shade to its roots is ideal, but its own foliage should provide just about as much shade as it requires. A wall or wattle hurdles, or planting on a slope away from prevailing winds will provide the necessary summer protection, but frost is also a danger and if in a position noted for its severe frosts, bracken should be placed over the beds during January and February. A cold, wet clay soil will encourage frost damage to the roots and should be avoided unless it can be lightened by the use of caustic lime and some sand or grit in addition to the humus. A wet, badly drained soil will not grow good alstroemeria, for the roots will rot away during winter. But this does not mean that a heavy loam is of no value. A heavy, well-drained loam, well worked and containing the correct amount of humus will be equally as suitable as a light soil. But wherever alstroemerias are to be planted the ground must be cleared of all perennial weeds for the roots are best left undisturbed for years and any rooting about in the beds other than to rake in a fertilizer top dressing may cause damage to the tubers. A yearly mulch will take care of the annual weeds but all perennial weeds must be carefully eliminated before the preparation of the beds is begun.

PLANTING AND CARE OF THE BEDS

The roots are generally purchased by the bushel, like mint roots – indeed, they may be likened to fleshy mint roots – or they may be purchased by the stone. Even the best strains are quite inexpensive, which makes it all the more surprising that the cut bloom is able to maintain its price year after year.

In the south and west country, the tuberous roots may be planted during early autumn, for here the weather is rarely severe, but for other parts of the country March planting is the most satisfactory, especially if there is any tendency to stickiness in the soil. Planting depths vary, some growers planting to a depth of 10 in., others 3 in. I prefer to strike a happy medium and plant about 6 in. deep.

A yearly top dressing will gradually increase this depth and should a period of severe weather be experienced, the beds can easily be covered with bracken or peat. The best method of planting is to take out trenches 9 in. apart and to incorporate some rotted manure, hops, seaweed or peat, or even a quantity of each. The tubers are placed in the trenches in the same way as when planting asparagus or mint and they should in no way be cramped. If the soil is heavy, the roots should be placed on a thin layer of peat and sand for any undue collection of water about the roots during winter may cause rotting.

As the roots will, within eighteen months, almost entirely cover the bed, sending up their flowering spikes over every inch of the ground, sufficient room must be allowed to walk between the beds for picking. No staking will be required as plant growth will support the flower stems, but during the flowering period some protection from strong winds is necessary in an exposed garden.

PICKING AND BUNCHING

The size of a bunch will depend on the requirements of the market salesman, some favour twelve spikes to a bunch, others twenty-four. The stems should be cut with the lily-like bloom showing colour and fastened both beneath the bloom and at the end of the stems. They are packed in ordinary flower boxes which have been lined with white tissue paper.

GROWING FROM SEED

The roots are easily raised from seed which is taken from the plants during early September. A John Innes seed compost will be satisfactory, but I find that with alstroemeria a little additional peat will hasten germination. The sowing should be made in a greenhouse where gentle heat will encourage quick germination. The seedlings are pricked into boxes in the usual way and removed to a cold frame in April to harden off, and they are then planted outside early in June. They will flower the following year.

MULCHING

No plant enjoys a mulch more than alstroemeria, either with pure peat or a peat and soil mixture, which should be given the beds after flowering and when the foliage has died down in October. This will give protection in winter and will keep the plants through a dry summer.

SPECIES AND VARIETIES

  • Alstroemeria aurantiaca. This is the species grown in quantity for market, of which there are a number of varieties. The species bears deep yellow flowers, spotted with brown. It does not make such high prices, but is perhaps easier than Dover Orange.
  • Dover Orange. This is the best of the aurantiaca group, bearing flowers of the richest orange bronze, much sought after by florists.
  • Ligtu Hybrids. Exquisite pink, orange, raspberry and flame shades of the species, which are delightful in earthenware jars in the home. Of easy culture in a well-drained soil.
  • A. haemantha. An attractive species bearing vivid blood-red orange-throated blooms.
  • A. peregrina. Growing to a height of only 20 in., this is a lovely plant for the back of a rockery or front of a border. It bears large heads of lilac flowers, flushed rose-pink.

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