Coral drops (Bessera elegans)
Do you like the odd and unusual? The tiny Coral Drops is a plant for those of you who like to have something different in the garden. I like bulbs and I’m always trying a new type of bulb just to see how it grows. For most of you in the US below zone 8 this will be a plant you grow in pots since the plants are not hardy and their small size requires the ability to keep them in view and not lost in the garden border. They could possibly be grown in rock gardens and treated as annuals as the corms are inexpensive.
Coral Drops are related to the onions and their narrow round leaves will remind you of the alliums or a clump of chives. The plants are only about 10 inches tall but the flower spikes will rise to about 18 inches. Clusters of flowers are produced on those spikes well above the leaves.
The buds are showy coral red drops dangling from the flower spikes and probably the reason for the common name. When they open the dainty, ‘flying” flowers have 6 red orange petals, each with a stripe down the center. In some flowers the stripe is white, in others a darker red than the petals. The center of the flower is lighter in color, almost white. There are 6 very long anthers, they remind me of birds legs sticking out of the flower. The one female part, the pistil in the center of the flower, is deep purple.
The flowers dangle downward and you may have to tip them up to examine them closely. I could see placing the pots so you looked up at the flowers, which would be quite interesting.
Coral drops are native to Mexico and grow where the winters are dry with temperatures in the 50’s. In the summer the natural habitat is flooded with rains and the plants bloom in response to the rains. In pots the plants will bloom from mid-summer until frost.
Gardeners will want to start coral drops from corms, which are available in the spring from many bulb catalogs. Plant 6-8 corms in a 10” pot about 3 inch deep in a well-draining potting mixture. Put the pot outside in full sun after danger of frost has passed. I start mine a bit earlier inside to get blooms sooner.
In the summer when you expect them to bloom coral drops need to be kept well-watered, especially in pots. A slow release fertilizer in the potting medium or watering weekly with a weak water soluble fertilizer helps blooming. There are no known insect or disease pests and deer and rabbits do not like the plants.
In zones lower than zone 8 let a light frost kill the foliage and then remove the foliage. Bring the pots inside and let them sit in a dry, dim area that stays above freezing, preferably between 40 and 55 degrees F for the winter. In late April in zones below 7 I would bring the pots into a bright warm area and water them deeply so you can get a jump start on spring. Move them outside after danger of frost has passed. In zone 7 you can probably put the pots outside in April and water them if it’s dry.
Gardeners could also plant the corms right in the ground and dig the before a freeze and store them like glad bulbs. In zone 8 coral drops may slowly spread when left in the ground. Even in pots the corms may multiply and need to be divided every couple of years. In warm zones coral drops may form seed pods but seed germination is said to be poor and erratic.
I like odd things and grow coral drops for that reason. I have heard that some people have kept the plants inside as house plants and were able to get them to bloom. They do need a dry resting period though. I can see coral drops being used in fairy or other miniature gardens and as a rock garden plant. They are inexpensive so why not try a few in your garden?