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Sparaxis flowers bright and easy

Gardeners who like a touch of the exotic need not despair in these water-conscious times. Many of Earth's loveliest flowers can get by with less.

Take sparaxis, a group of bulbs -- underground stems called corms, to be precise -- that hails from South Africa. It grows to about a foot high and can be so alluring, it will have you crouching for a closer look.

The coppery-apricot flowers of Sparaxis elegans are intricately painted: Their purple centers are rimmed with yellow spots edged in black. "When you see a clump of them, they're magnificent," says Harold Koopowitz, former director of the UC Irvine Arboretum. "I call them kaleidoscope flowers because of the patterning, and nearly every individual plant is somewhat different from every other plant."

Sparaxis elegans and most other sparaxis are hard to come by. The West Coast is one of the few places it will grow without a lot of fuss. But Sparaxis tricolor, often called harlequin flower, is fairly common. Tricolor hybrids sport colors such as orange, coral, black cherry and pale pink. The tubular flowers look as if they have a yellow daisy nestled inside.

Southern California is drier than the plant's native soil, so here sparaxis usually needs to be watered. How much depends on whom you consult, the weather and your exact location. Solano Beach grower Jim Duggan's general recommendation is generous: Soak twice a week while the plants are growing.

"The thing people miss is they wait too long to water," Duggan says. "Start watering in October to get them going." You can stop after they bloom in March.

Although some sparaxis will tolerate year-round irrigation, most prefer to be dry in summer.

The plants sit out the season by storing water and food in their corms. This makes them good companions for native plants, many of which also languish if watered in hot weather. Another option is to place sparaxis in pots; when the plants die back, you can move pots out of sight.

Either way, the flowers are easy to grow, provided you tuck them in a sunny spot that drains well. There's usually no need to fertilize.

Sparaxis tricolor is available at Armstrong Garden Centers and some other nurseries. Don't wait for the planting dates suggested on packages. Put the corms in the ground immediately. Duggan's website, www.thebulbman.com, has closed sales for the year, but for other sparaxis, you can try www.anniesannuals.com.

One downside to sparaxis is its fleeting splendor. Each cluster of flowers will blossom for about three weeks -- long enough to appreciate their beauty when they're gone.

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