Mexican shellflowers: Small bulbs with a big flower punch

Mexican shellflowers, also known as tiger or peacock flowers, take gardens to a new level with their exotic-looking blooms.

Mexican shellflowers, <i>Tigridia pavonia</i>, have three brightly colored petals on the outside and spotted or speckled petals on the inside. All photos by Patrick Voyle.

Mexican shellflowers, Tigridia pavonia, have three brightly colored petals on the outside and spotted or speckled petals on the inside. All photos by Patrick Voyle.

Tigridia pavonia or Mexican shellflower, a small, summer-flowering bulb, is making a big splash with more gardeners each growing season. Other common names include tiger flower, peacock flower and jockey’s cap lily. This tender bulb is planted in the spring, dug in the fall and stored indoors over the winter. Smart gardeners are always looking for a way to take their flower garden to a new level, and adding these exotic-looking blooms can do this.

Tigridia has green, shiny, narrow, strap-like leaves and the plant is 18-24 inches tall, but the real party begins when the plant blooms. The flowers are very showy and are anywhere from 3-6 inches wide. Three brightly colored petals are arranged in a triangular pattern around a central cup of smaller petals. The big outside petals are a solid color and can be pink, magenta, red, orange, yellow or white and the inside petals are spotted or speckled. A flower opens each day and by early evening, around 5 p.m., it closes permanently. Each bulb can produce several flowers in the middle of summer if the bulb is large enough.

Tigridia pavonia is native to Mexico, Guatemala, San Salvador and Honduras. It has naturalized into Peru and Ecuador, making it hardy to zones 8 to 10. That means it’ll survive a winter temperature of no colder than 10 degrees, but as a bulb, when the ground freezes, it is dead. This is why it is necessary to dig the bulbs up each fall. Tigridia can tolerate heat and humidity and full to partial sun. It can tolerate quite a spread in soil pH from 5.5 to 7.5. The bulbs need adequate moisture, but cannot handle wet soils.

Tigridia flower bulbs are small and relatively inexpensive. If conditions are favorable, the bulbs will multiply themselves. The plants appear to have no problems with insects or disease. The small bulbs do not require much storage space in comparison to canna rhizomes, which are the size of Yule logs.

Mexican shellflower bulbs

Mexican shellflower bulbs.

Michigan State University Extension horticulture educators encourage gardeners to expand their flower selection with perennials, annuals, spring flowering bulbs and summer bulbs. This may be a great way to do this.

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