Tuberoses: Fragrant Garden Antiques

by Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas AgriLife Extension Service, College Station, TX
Tuberose (Polianthes)
Tuberose (Polianthes).
Tuberoses in Cultivation
Tuberoses in cultivation.
(Images courtesy of, Gallatin, Tenn.)

Tuberoses are plants suitable for Zones 8 and 9, which bloom in late summer. They are members of the Agavaceae, and were domesticated by pre-Columbian Indians of Mexico and are not known as wild plants. They are among the most fragrant of all garden plants and are easily cultivated in the Gulf South. P. tuberosa is grown for cut flower production and as a source of perfume. White, tubular flowers are loosely arranged on spikes that can reach 3 to 4 feet in height. Late summer to early fall the spectacular spikes appear and scent the garden. Foliage is long, slender, and grass-like, with little landscape value.

Tuberoses were among the first plants taken back to the Old World. They were revered by the Spanish and often used in their gardens. P. tuberosa was among the plants included in the garden of a well-known Sevillian physician, Simon Tovar, who died in 1596. Tuberoses were also mentioned in early accounts of horticulture in the Gulf states written by William Bartram. They were among many useful and interesting exotics at a plantation near Baton Rouge, on the Mississippi in 1777, which grew from five to seven feet high in the open ground, the flowers being very large and abundant. (William Bartram in Bartram, William, Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, etc., Philadelphia, 1791. pp. 421-427)

Mexican Single performs better in the garden than the double flowering Pearl. Elongated tubers are best dug and stored like gladiolus in all zones except 9 and 10 where they may be left in the ground year round. Mid-spring is the best time to set out new tubers. Tuberoses prefer a sunny location having well-drained soil. For mass effect in the border, space the tubers 4 to 6 inches apart and 2 inches deep. In good conditions the plants multiply quickly.

It's sometimes possible to find tuberoses in nationally circulated plant catalogs. One specialty nursery is that of the Tennessee Tuberoses Nursery of Derek and Sherry Dyer of Gallatin, Tennessee. They are growing and selling tuberoses that were originally grown and passed down by a great-grandmother. The plants multiply quickly and the owners are available to answer questions about all aspects of flower production (

Tuberoses are still popular in Mexican gardens where they are called Nardo or Azucena. They have been grown commercially for florists and bulb distributors in the San Antonio area for many years and are sometimes available in garden centers during the spring.

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