Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • So Much More Than New
Read More: Diverse Others
Colette’s Gardenia: “I Bow Down Before the Tuberose”
Although little known today, Colette (1873-1954) was the highly regarded French author of some 50 novels, many of them considered scandalously sensual at the time.
Her 1948 book For an Herbarium focused on the sensual delights of flowers. In the chapter titled “The Gardenia’s Monologue,” that famously fragrant flower scorns jasmine, nicotiana, magnolia, and other scented rivals before finally making this confession:
“I put up with all of these humbler bearers of nocturnal balms, certain that I have no rivals, save one, I confess . . . before whom at times I do worse than confess: I abdicate.
“On certain meridional nights heavy with the promise of rain, certain afternoons rumbling with casual thunder, then my ineffable rival need only show herself, and for all the gardenia in me, I weaken, I bow down before the tuberose.”
Here’s a cool idea I stumbled upon recently in a 1957 book called Bulb Growing for Everyone.
I’d seen images like this one in catalogs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but since all sorts of implausible things are pictured in catalogs old and new, I never gave it much thought. But the well-known Dutch bulb-grower Johan Frederik Christiaan Dix explains how it’s done:
“The receptacles in which we place [crocus] must not be so deep as those required for other bulbs, and they require far more attention insofar that a more gradual transition from a dark, cool place to a light, heated room is necessary.
“They should not be taken out into the light until the noses are fully two inches long and . . . they must on no account be brought into a hot temperature, otherwise the bulbs will shrivel up. So keep them cool until the buds rise from among the leaves. This is the moment to bring them into the room or onto a warm windowsill.
“Most crocuses cannot be expected to flower before the end of January. . . . There is one exception, however, the crocus ‘Vanguard’ which begins to flower as early as New Year’s Day, and even at Christmas.”
We plan to give it a try – with ‘Vanguard’, of course. We’ll start the bulbs as soon as possible because they need months to root and grow, and we’ll store them in the refrigerator to make sure they stay below 48° but above freezing. If you try it, too, please let us know how it goes!
Our True (and Hardy) Byzantine Glads vs. the “Weeny Ones”
One of the bulbs I’m most proud of helping to preserve and share with gardeners across the country is our true, American-grown, zone-6 hardy Byzantine gladiolus. It’s both spectacular and very hard to find, as our good customer Sharon Beasley of Newcastle, Oklahoma, pointed out recently on Facebook:
“My most exciting purchase is your Byzantine glads. I saw them in a garden years ago and bought some back then [from another source] that turned out to be the weeny ones. They are cute, but once you have seen the real thing, they don’t seem wonderful at all. I finally ordered some from you last fall and got the real beauties. They bloomed this spring and I am so happy I ordered them.
“I don’t think I’ve seen another catalog that carries the big ones. I think the price gives away whether they are the weeny ones or the real thing. Thank you!”
Since Byzantines are FALL-planted only, now is the time to order yours and make yourself happy like Sharon!
Along with an excellent article about the Hortus Bulborum, the October issue of Gardens Illustrated (#226) includes bulb recommendations from UK garden celebrities in an article titled “Designers’ Favorite Bulbs.”
Famed garden writer Mary Keen recommends fragrant ‘General de Wet’ tulip, “hard to find” Tulipa clusiana, and ‘Trevithian’ daffodil which is not only “scented and good for picking” but also “lasts longer than most in the garden.”
Rosemary Alexander of the English Gardening School recommends “showy, long-lived” winter aconite, “timeless and elegant” ‘Thalia’ daffodil, and — at the top of her list — silver bells (Ornithogalum nutans). “With silvery, gray-green, bluebell-like flowers,” she writes, “it is subtle and beloved by flower arrangers as it lasts well when picked. Best in well-drained, light shade. Great among ferns.”
And Tom Stuart-Smith, whose current projects include “restoring an Islamic garden in Marrakech,” recommends “subtle” ‘Vanguard’ crocus – “for sheer impact it is superb,” he says – and pricey ‘S. Arnott’ snowdrop. “I am not a collector,” he writes, “and for the most part I am completely happy with . . . humble Galanthus nivalis . . . but I have bought about 20 ‘S. Arnott’ every year for the past ten years and am beginning to think it’s really worth it. So much substance combined with grace.”
2016 Great Plant Picks: They’re Not Just for Humans
Every year since 2001, Seattle’s Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden has released an annual list of Great Plant Picks. Although especially well-suited to gardens in the Pacific Northwest, many of these plants are also outstanding choices for gardens across the country.
Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds are the focus of this year’s GPP list, and Rick Peterson provides an excellent introduction to it in Pacific Horticulture.
A few species tulips are also recommended, including T. clusiana and T. sylvestris which will have bees “bustling around the garden with satisfaction” and, in the right spot, will “reliably return year after year.”
Staff Picks: Vanessa’s Favorites for Spring Planting
Vanessa Elms lives in a charming little 1920s bungalow in the Depot Town neighborhood of nearby Ypsilanti (the Brooklyn of Ann Arbor). She traces her love of plants to tagging along with her parents to local nurseries when she was a child, and after earning a horticulture degree from Michigan State and spending a few years working for a landscape company in Chicago, she returned here a few years ago to join us as our VP for Bulbs.
When I asked her to recommend ONE of her favorite spring-planted bulbs, Vanessa gave me three instead:
‘Mexican Single’ tuberose – “Every year I grow these in clay pots near my living room windows, and their fragrance drifts in nicely on warm summer nights. They’re also a favorite of the hawk moths that visit my garden in the early evening.
‘George Davison’ crocosmia – “Last summer I planted these with some other plants that attract hummingbirds, and they were a big hit. They can be slow to sprout – I actually started to plant annuals over mine because I was sure they weren’t coming up – but they’re definitely worth the wait.
‘Prince Noir’ dahlia – “My all time favorite dahlia! I especially love the contrast of these dark-petaled flowers in a simple white vase.”
Blog-Goddess Reports “Virtually 100% Success” with Our Winter Aconites
Always the first bulb to bloom here in our garden, winter aconites are thrilling, cheery, and carefree — so why aren’t more people growing them?
Although their tiny tubers can be hard to get established, our good friend Margaret Roach writes this week at her wildly popular A Way to Garden blog, “Good news: Buying waxed tubers from a vendor like Old House Gardens helps. I had virtually 100 percent success with their waxed tubers — a dramatic difference from any other time I’d tried to establish a new colony.”
In 1820 when it was listed in America’s very first bulb catalog, Indian turnip was the common name for the striking native plant that most of us today call jack-in-the-pulpit. Although its raw corms are poisonous, Native Americans learned to neutralize the poison by roasting or drying them for six months, after which they could be peeled and ground into a flour for making bread.
Jack-in-the-pulpit and Indian turnip are just two of this intriguing plant’s many names which include (so the internet says) Iroquois breadroot, starchwort, pepper turnip, bog onion, dragonroot, memory root, Indian cherries (for its red fruit), Indian cradle, brown dragon (to distinguish it from its native cousin, green dragon), petit precheur (in Quebec), aronskelk (in Dutch-settled areas), tuckahoe, cooter-wampee, wake robin (a name more often applied to trillium), Adam’s apple, devil’s ear, cobra lily, and — from its Old World cousin Arum maculatum — cuckoopint and lords-and-ladies.
And here’s another fascinating tidbit: jack-in-the-pulpit can change from male to female and back again. When they’re smaller, plants are generally male, but when environmental conditions are favorable and they grow large enough, they become female, producing seeds in a cluster of bright red berries. The year after fruiting or when conditions are challenging, plants often change back to male until they can build up the strength to set seed again.
This multi-talented native bulb is easy to grow in light shade, and you can order it now for fall planting.
Spanish bluebells are great. Also known as squill in the South, they’re tough enough to bloom and naturalize just about anywhere. But if it’s English bluebells you’re looking for – the iconic wildflower of British woodlands – you’ll need to know how to tell them apart, because counterfeits are ubiquitous.
As head gardener Quentin Stark explains in the May 2015 issue of The English Garden, English bluebells are “a wonderful rich blue. The flowers are tubular and grow on just one side of the stem” – which you can clearly see in this accompanying photo – “and they have an amazing scent. Spanish bluebells are taller, with paler blue, more open flowers, have no scent, and the flowers grow all the way around the stem, making the plant more upright.”
Our true English bluebells are the real deal. They come to us from a small nursery in Wales where they’re native, and you can order yours now for fall planting at last fall’s prices.
“Well, here’s a cool thing,” our good customer Nancy McDonald emailed us last March. Nancy gardens in zone-5a Grand Marais, Michigan, a mile from Lake Superior, where the annual snowfall averages over 11 feet (yes, 11 feet!).
“Three days ago my snowdrops were covered with more than a foot of snow. Two days ago the snow melted. Yesterday they had little green and white spears sticking up. Today the stems are long enough that the buds are starting to hang over. If it’s warm enough tomorrow, I bet some of them will open. That’s zero to sixty in only three days. Incredible!”
Our good customer Amy Reynolds of Saint Louis, Missouri, emailed us this helpful tip:
“Your lily bulbs are fabulous! I popped them in the ground immediately. To protect them from an abundant local rodent population, I’ve planted them (as I always do with lilies) with several allium companions. I’ve found that squirrels and chipmunks won’t excavate past the alliums to get to nearby lily bulbs while they’re dormant, and the rabbits won’t go near allium foliage come spring.”
To try this yourself, why not order a few of our fabulous lilies and alliums right now?
Learning from You: Pink Surprise Lilies Beyond Zones 6-7
Thanks to all of you who responded to our query about growing pink surprise lilies, Lycoris squamigera, outside of the narrow range we’d been recommending for them. You gave us lots of great feedback, and here’s the short version of what we learned.
ZONES – Many readers told us they’ve had long-term success with surprise lilies in zones 5b and 8a, and for the past couple of years we’ve been getting our bulbs from a third-generation bulb farm in 8a, so we’ve now expanded our zone recommendations to include zones 5b-8a(8bWC).
SOIL – Although well-drained soils are usually recommended for surprise lilies, several readers say theirs grow just fine in clay soil. Clay is dense, though, which makes it harder for bulbs to multiply, and it holds water longer which can cause bulbs to rot.
WATER – Many readers say they never water their surprise lilies, and that may be a good thing. Like most bulbs, they do best when they’re relatively dry during their summer dormancy. Since many of us water our gardens then, this could be one reason they’re often found surviving in lawns and “neglected” areas that get less watering – though of course they do need water when they’re not dormant, from fall through the end of spring.
SUN/SHADE – Full sun seems to suit them best, especially the further north they’re planted. But many of our readers said they do well in partial shade, too, especially if it’s from deciduous trees which leaf out later.
PLANTING DEPTH – Some authorities say to plant them with the neck just under the soil surface, but our expert North Carolina grower recommends planting them so they’re covered with 2-4 inches of soil. Since the bulbs we ship are 3-4 inches tall, that means planting them with the base 5-8 inches deep.
LONG WAIT FOR BLOOM – If you dig them from a neighbor’s yard you probably won’t have this problem, but if you plant dry, dormant bulbs you’ll have to be patient. Although most will put up leaves their first spring, sometimes nothing emerges until the spring after that, and they virtually never bloom until their second or even third year.
Thanks again to everyone who helped us “crowd-source” this article! For the longer version, including quotes from customers growing them everywhere from zone-3 Saskatchewan to zone-9 Florida, see our More About Surprise Lilies page.
Rogue Voles Teach Cornell Scientist about Animal-Resistant Bulbs
When voles ate bulbs intended for a study on deer-resistance, Cornell University’s Bill Miller made the best of it. In the fall, Miller had potted up the bulbs and put them into cold storage. Unfortunately in spring he discovered that “during the winter, prairie voles had taken up residence in the stacks of crates and had eaten more than 35% of the bulbs. We found two large nests of voles, and the youngsters were quite happy, well fed, and growing fast from their nutritious meals. . . . Of course we were not happy with this, but we used it as an opportunity to learn some things about vole feeding and flower bulbs.” The voles’ favorite bulbs included tulips, crocus, Anemone blanda, and Chionodoxa luciliae, but they avoided those listed below. Deer would, too, Miller points out, since deer and voles are known to have similar tastes.
Hyacinths – “Bulbs were not attacked and shoots were perfect when uncovered. . . . From this we can conclude that hyacinths are pretty immune to attack from voles, and my own experience suggests that deer usually leave hyacinths alone.”
Daffodils – “Voles dug in about 10% of the pots but did not damage the bulb or emerging shoots” – and most gardeners know that daffodils are reliably deer-resistant.
Bulbs in Pots: Our New Page of Tips for Tuberoses, Rain Lilies, and More
Every summer we decorate our front porch with pots of fragrant tuberoses and little pink rain lilies, while out in the back yard we tuck pots of glads in among the perennials to provide exclamation points of color.
You can, too! Most spring-planted bulbs are easy to grow in containers, and you’ll find everything you need to know at our newly expanded “Bulbs in Pots” page.
Read it now and get ready for a summer filled with beauty, fragrance, and fun.
Wesley Greene, Williamsburg’s lead-interpreter for heirloom plants, wrote us a while ago in praise of one of our most popular heirlooms, tuberoses:
“What is amazing to me is how well known the tuberose is in the 18th century, and how little known in the 21st. It is mentioned frequently in the correspondence between John Custis of Williamsburg and Peter Collinson of London.
“A 1736 letter from Collinson reads: ‘It gives Mee great pleasure that the Tuberoses proved a new Acquisition to your Garden. I [am surprised] you had them not, when they are on both sides of you in south Carolina & Pensilvania. My friend [colonial botanist John Bartram] from Last place writt Mee he had last yeare 149 flowers on one single Flower Stalk which is very Extriordinary, but I have heard the Like from Carolina where they Stand in the Ground and Increase amazeingly.’”
Wesley went on to say, “I did not realize at first how much more fragrant they were in the evening, because I am home by then. One of our visitors from Mexico told me, so one night when I had to stay late I walked back to the garden about 7:30 and the fragrance was nearly over-powering!”
To enjoy that lush fragrance yourself, order a few to plant this spring.