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A majority of the species we think of as "bulbs" are native to a summer-dry climate, something that's also called the "mediterranean" climate. But what exactly is that climate, and what does it tell us about growing bulbs? The answer turns out to be surprisingly complicated...
At first glance that's a stupid question. We all know what a mediterranean climate is -- it's dry warm summers and cool wet winters. That's like asking what a mountain is; we all know one when we see one.
Or do we? In the eastern United States, the Appalachians are a mountain range. In northern India they'd be foothills. We have a similar problem with mediterranean climates. For example, the "mediterranean" weather in parts of Italy has ten times more summer rain than "mediterranean" southern California. The same variation happens with winter cold -- parts of mediterranean South Africa barely get any frost at all, while frost and even hard freezes are common in much of mediterranean Chile and California. Some bulb-rich places with dry summers don't even qualify as officially mediterranean because they're too cold in winter or too dry overall.
I'm convinced that many of our struggles to grow summer-dormant bulbs come from an assumption that everything "mediterranean" needs the same treatment. It's not true. You'll have a better chance of succeeding with a bulb if you know the particular type of summer-dry climate a bulb comes from.
I created 28 summer-dry climate zones, so we could easily compare climates from one region to another. The zones depend on two variables: the severity of the summer drought, and the depth of winter cold.
Let's start with a chart of the zones, then I'll explain them:
Dark colors in the chart correlate to temperature: the darker the colors are, the colder a place gets in winter. Hue indicates summer rain: reds and purples are the driest areas in summer; greens and blues are the wettest. So an area that's dark purple is a very cold, very dry desert (think Afghanistan); light purple is a dry, warm desert (Baja California).
Combine the four cold temperature zones with the seven rainfall zones, and you get a total of 28 summer-dry zones. Because we've included deserts and areas with cold winters, the zones extend beyond the traditional mediterranean areas of the world. A climatologist might be annoyed, but this broader set of zones corresponds much better to the world's summer-dry bulb climates.
Here's a map of the world's dry-summer (mediterranean) regions. The map is too low-resolution to see the individual zones, so it's followed by detailed maps of each region.
Here are the regional maps:
(Note: The larger versions of the maps are up to two megabytes in size. They may be slow to download if you're on a dial-up connection.)
There are (broadly speaking) three summer-dry areas in South Africa with different rainfall patterns. The southern tip of Africa, extending from Cape Town east along the coast, has relatively moist summers with a relatively short summer drought. Those are the green and blue areas you see on the map.
The west coast, from just north of Cape Town up to Clanwilliam, has longer and drier summers than the south. Those are the orange and yellow areas on the map. The climate here is a bit more like California and parts of North Africa. To the north and east, the red and purple areas are summer-dry deserts with similarities to northern Chile. They're not usually included in maps of "mediterranean" South Africa, but they include important bulb centers like Nieuwoudtville.
The map of summer-dry areas here is dominated by greens and blues, meaning they get a bit of summer rainfall in an average year. Along the coastlines are strips with very light color, meaning they almost never experience freezing temperatures. Note the very thin strip of mediterranean climate along the south-western coast near Esperance. If you go inland even 20 km, the amount of winter rainfall drops off so much that it's hard to classify the local climate as mediterranean. There are two summer-dry desert areas, one near Carnarvon on the west coast, and the other west of Fowler's Bay on the southern coast. But most of the desert areas in Australia have almost no rain at all, or there's no seasonality to the rain that they get, so they're not included in this map.
The Andes Mountains restrict the summer-dry climate to a relatively narrow strip along the coast, although there are a couple of summer-dry pockets to the east in the rain shadow of the Andes. In general, the further south you go, the shorter and milder the summer drought becomes.
The weather data available online for Chile is sparser than for other countries, and in particular there is almost no weather information for the Andes themselves. I think there are probably some strips of cold summer-dry climate in the mountains to the east of the zones I've drawn, but I can't find any data to document them, so I left those areas blank.
The combination of mountains and the Mediterranean Sea makes for a very complicated picture. The northern Mediterranean coast is generally blues and greens, meaning they tend to get some summer rain. In fact, parts of the coast, such as the area around Barcelona, get so much summer rain that I don't think you can call them summer-dry at all, even though they are officially classified as "mediterranean."
The southern Mediterranean (North Africa) is yellow and orange along the coast, meaning it's dryer than the north. There are splotches of blue and green where the Atlas Mountains produce higher rainfall. Then to the south of the mountains, in their rain shadow, are deserts. As you move east along the coast of North Africa, Libya and Egypt have narrow strips of summer-dry desert along the edge of the water. The eastern Mediterranean is mostly oranges and yellows, meaning it's close to desert conditions, and much drier in summer than the northern Mediterranean.
Inland Turkey is filled with dark colors, meaning it gets very cold in winter, but is summer-dry. These areas are not classified as mediterranean, but they're an important homeland for many bulbs, some of which require cold storage in winter.
Central Asia and Middle East
The Middle East and Central Asia are not classified as mediterranean, but they have huge summer-dry areas, some of which are important bulb territory. Much of Saudi Arabia and the area around the Persian Gulf is extreme summer-dry desert with mild winter temperatures (light purple). Inland Central Asia, meanwhile, is dominated by dark browns and purples, indicating very cold summer-dry deserts. This is the homeland to many Tulip species. If you live in a mild climate and you wonder why you have to store tulips in a refrigerator in order to get them to bloom, this is why.
The combination of mountains, seas, and lowlands makes the climate in this area very complicated, and there are relatively few weather stations. So the zones I drew here are approximate.
In California, as in Europe, the combination of ocean and mountains makes the weather very complex. At the southern tip of the state of California, extending down into Baja California, is an area of summer-dry desert (purple zones on the map). In the Baja peninsula this desert, sandwiched between oceans, has mild temperatures (light purple). In southeastern California it's dark purple because the desert there is further inland and gets a lot colder in winter. In northern Baja there is also a patchwork of other colors in the center of the peninsula, where the mountains produce more rainfall.
Much of southern and central California is orange and yellow, indicating near-desert rainfall with relatively long dry summers. The colors are dark; California gets a fair amount of frost, especially away from the immediate coast. A band of dark green marks the Sierra Nevada mountains, which freeze under snow cover in the winter. Overall, this is probably the coldest of the mediterranean regions, and in California one of the driest.
To the east, in the rain shadow of the Sierras, many of the mountain ranges in northern Nevada are cold summer-dry desert.
North of Red Bluff in California, all the way up to southern British Columbia, is a band of green and blue. You may be surprised to see these areas mapped as summer-dry, but they have a pronounced summer drought and a rainfall pattern similar to areas of France and Italy that are considered mediterranean. They are also the home to substantial numbers of bulbs, so they belong in any map of summer-dry bulb climates. Winter temperatures in the Pacific Northwest can be cold, especially as you get away from the coast. To the east are very large summer-dry areas reaching into Idaho, all of them cold in winter (dark colors), some of them officially deserts (dark red/brown). Many bulbs from these areas need to be refrigerated in winter, and do most of their growing in early spring, when the snow would be melting in their native climates. But like other summer-dry bulbs, they go completely dormant in summer.
Here are a few examples of how to use the chart and maps:
Sparaxis metlerkampiae grows near Clanwilliam, South Africa. It's a cute little purple-flowered bulb that you might want to add to your collection. But how to grow it? Searching online, the only information I can find is that it needs "normal" water, grows in USDA zones 9-10, prefers loam soil, and should be kept in a greenhouse where not hardy. The information is so generalized that it's very close to useless.
Here's what you can do with the climate zones: Looking at the chart, I see that Clanwilliam is in zone C4, the same zone as Casablanca and Los Angeles. Now all of a sudden I know a lot. As a native Californian, I've never been to Clanwilliam or Casablanca, but I know the climate in Los Angeles very well. It gets about the same rainfall as San Jose (where I live), but is a bit warmer in winter. So I can give Sparaxis metlerkampiae the same watering I use for bulbs that are native to my area, but it'll need a bit more protection from cold.
Moraea lurida is a variable-colored species native to the area between Caledon and Hermanus in South Africa. On the map of South Africa, you can see that area is in zone E3, which the chart shows is roughly equivalent to Eureka, CA. That was a big surprise to me. Eureka is on the northern coast of California, in an area so damp that most Californians would tell you it's not even mediterranean. So the map says that if you want to grow Moraea lurida at my house you might want to start watering it in late summer (about two months before the rains start) and keep it moist through the end of spring. And sure enough, it responds very well to that treatment.
One more example. Calochortus nitidus is a bewitching purple flower with complex yellow and brown markings, and long hairs on the inside of the flower. It grows near Pullman, Washington, which is in zone F1: extremely cold winters, and relatively damp summers. A PBS member growing it in zone D3 could not get it to bloom until she started watering the dormant bulbs in summer. Someone in a warmer zone might need to refrigerate the bulbs in winter as well.
Here are some interesting climate siblings:
Santiago, Chile; Jerusalem; and San Luis Obispo, California (zone C3). Near deserts with occasional frost.
Tehran, Iran; Palmdale, California; Rancagua, Chile; and Nieuwodtville, South Africa (zone D2). All are moderately dry deserts that get fairly cold in winter.
Yosemite, California and Ankara, Turkey (zone E1). Yosemite is a valley nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In winter its famous waterfalls freeze solid and there's usually snow. This underlines how cold it can get in inland Turkey. There aren't any summer-dry areas in South Africa or Australia cold enough to be in this climate zone.
The hardest part of making these maps was deciding what information to leave out of them. In some cases, the information needed was not available online. Also, it's hard to add more zones than we have now because the colors start to blend together and the maps become unreadable. Here are some of the other variables I would have liked to include:
I'll do my best to continue improving the maps in the future, but as Jane McGary pointed out, there is no substitute for going to a place and seeing in person how its climate operates. Any map is just an abstraction and can't convey all of the details of a local climate. So please use these maps in the interim until you can make a visit to these places in person.
The other major bulb-growing climate in the world is places with drought in winter. These areas include eastern South Africa and central Mexico. They're home to many beautiful bulbs. If anyone wants to create a zone system for the winter-dry climates, I'd be glad to advise them.
Some gorgeous bulbs native to the world's winter-dry climates:
Maps and commentary by Michael Mace, San Jose, CA. I hope you'll find these maps useful. No climate-classification system is perfect, but if the maps help you make better guesses about how to handle a particular bulb, they have served their purpose. Your comments and questions are welcome. You can reach me through the PBS contact page.