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How to Grow Bulb Plants

A WORLD OF BULBS

An overwhelming number of bulbs air native to a broad latitudinal Strip extending from Spain and North Af­rica through the Mediterranean re­gion. eastward through the Near East. Turkey, and Iran, and on as far as western China Actual summer and winter temperatures vary con­siderably in this vast territory, but nearly all parts of the area experi­ence winter precipitation (rain or snow) and hot, dry summer. The same climatic conditions prevail in California, pans of Chile, and South Africa these regions, too, are home­land to a number of popular bulbs.

The bulblike structure evolved as an adaptation to the annual alter­nation of wet and dry periods. Growth takes place during the cooler, moister months (autumn, winter. pan of spring). As days lengthen and grow warmer, flowers start to appear, sometimes seeming to rush into bloom while conditions are still favorable for setting seed. Then, as flowers fade and seeds ma­ture, the bulb accumulates a supply of nutnents that will keep it alive ( in a dormant state) after summer heat and dryness have withered foliage and put an end to the annual grow­ing penod.

A lesser, but still significant, a number of bulbs, most notably summer flowering African types such as Gloriosa and Zontedeschla, also come from regions that have a werdry alternation But here rainy weather comes during this summer months, while winters are cool and dry. Plants grow during the rainy season, then go dormant (or grow more slowly) when cool, dry condi­tions resume.

A few bulbs, such as ?peony­ranthes and fiabranthus, are native to areas where moist and dry spells alternate irregularly. These types may flower more than once during a year, whenever they receive enough rainfall to stimulate another growth cycle.

Of course. not all bulbous plants fit Into this neat geographical pattern Crinum and Colocasia. for example, grow in regions of year-round humidity, where development of a bulblike structure in response to climatic extremes would seem to be unnecessary. In general, these plants belong to families richly rep­resented in the world’s principal bulb regions, but they grow on the outskirts of the usual ranges.

A long history

An appreciation of bulbs is nothing new. Cretan frescoes and vases dat­ing from about 1600 sr are deco­rated with unmistakable iris and lily motifs; both an and written records attest that the early Egyptians grew various bulbs for ornament and cer­emonial purposes, among them anemones. irises. lilies. and nar­cissus.

The Greeks, too, were familiar with the beauty of bulbs. The writ­ings of the philosopherbotanist Theophrastus (around 340 tic mention plants we know today as al-hum mullion.- crocus. cyclamen.

gladiolus, grape hyacinth, lily, nar­cissus, ranunculus. and scilla. Roman records and poetry mention the use of various bulbs in religious rites and extol the beauties of partic­ular bulb flowers And Biblical refer­ences to bulbs abound in both the Old and New Testaments

Items of commerce. The Minoans of Crete were perhaps the first to real. lie any profit from bulbs, or at least the first to recognize their baser po­tential Presumably. they originated the saffron trade, marketing the dried stigmas of Crocus smalls for use as a sort of drug. Saffron is still produced and sold today. fetching very high prices as a cooking spice.

Tulipomania. The saffron trade pales, however, in comparison to history’s first recorded horticultural craw. the tulipomania of the early 17th century The story of tu­lipornama really begins in 1554, when a Belgian named Ogler de Busbecq was sent to Constantinople as Austrian envoy to the court of Sul­tan Suleiman I, then ruler of the Ottoman Empire. During his stay, de Busbecq encountered a flower totally unknown to him: the tulip. which had been cultivated in Turkey for some time.

When he returned from Turkey to Vienna. de Busbecq brought tulip bulbs with hum, some of which were acquired by the botanist Carolus Clusius (Charles L’Ecl use). Clusius became so fond of tulips that, when he moved to the Netherlands In 1593 to work at the botanical gardens in Leyden, he took bulbs with him. Their striking flowers naturally at­tracted interest, but Clusius jeal­ously guarded his tulip collection. asking impossibly high prices for the precious plants. Of course, this exclusive ownership couldn’t last forever; it wasn’t long before a num­ber of bulbs were stolen straight out of his garden. Clusius’s loss was the gain of wealthy Dutch burghers. among whom possession of rare tulips became the ultimate status symbol.

As the prestige of tulips In­creased, so did their prices. Stock­market-like speculation and trading marked the exchange of bulbs, which reached its frenzied zenith in the years 1634 to 1637.

Though tulipomania was a ca­tastrophe for unlucky investors at the time, it had far-reaching positive benefits. First, it made the enter­prising Netherlanders aware of the potential value of bulb production, laying the first stone in the founda­tion of today’s thriving Dutch bulb Industry. The tulip craze also had a noticeable effect on 17th-century art: the beautiful blossoms are fre­quently featured In the masterworks of the Dutch and Flemish floral painters.

The tulip’s introduction to Europe, and the fad popularity it enjoyed, signalled more than just an exagger­ated interest in an exotic figure The 17th century saw the beginning of increased contact with and Otxtilisi­lion of horticultural exotics, largely through the activities of prolif­erating ranks of botanistiexplorers and the East India companies of The Netherlands and England. From the abrupt end of tulipomania until 1800, a wealth of plants found their way to European botanical gardens and to the private estates of wealthy landholders.

This “domestication” of exotic flowers established interest in par­ticular plants—tulips and hya­cinths, among bulbs—and con­sequently led, in the 19th century, to the foundation of great commercial nurseries. (The Dutch bulb special­ist firm Van Tubergen, established in the early 1800s, is still a thriving part of the now international bulb business.) These establishments both furthered the development of many specialty plants and made them available to a growing class of individuals with time and money to spend on gardening.

The period from the late I9th century up to the present could well be called the Age of Specialists. Dur­ing this time, nurseries and individual growers have taken a special interest in particular bulbs, and through dedicated hybridizing have brought daffodils, dahlias, gladiolus, irises, and tulips (among others) to their current state of glorious refinement. This interest has given rise to a sepa­rate class of bulb grower: the abso­lute specialist, who markets only one type of bulb. Extreme special­ization has in no way diminished the general bulb trade, though; special­ist and generalist alike have benefited from an ever-increasing demand by a bulb-conscious gar­dening public.

Despite plant breeders’ stun­ning achievements with particular bulbs, there’s still room for further development, among both “devel­oped” bulbs and those that have yet to be extensively hybridized. Moreover, a resurgence of plant-collecting activity has sent botanists back into Greece, Turkey, and other areas not explored since the 19th century. Di her exped it ions are travel­ing into the rugged hills and moun­tains of Iran and the southern Soviet Union, pans of the “bulb moth­erland” where exploration had been severely limited by hostilities and inadequate transportation.

Asa result of recent exploration, newly discovered species are slowly entering cultivation—species that may themselves come to enrich our gardens, or that may provide parent material for undreamed-of future hybrids.

Naturalizing Bulbs

If you’re drawn to the beauty of bulbs but prefer to avoid the rigidity of a formal planting, or if you want to enjoy bulbs in season without obli-gation to much additional care, then naturalizing should appeal to you. Both in planting and care, nothing could be simpler. Choose carefully. As a first step in naturalizing, look over the list of suitable bulbs on this page, then read their descriptions . Select those bulbs best suited to your climate and garden conditions.

Next, make sure you have an appro-priate planting area for your selected bulbs—usually a grassy meadow or lightly shaded woodland, depend-ing on the particular bulb. Pay par-ticular attention to the need for sun or shade, and match the bulb’s mois-ture needs to your climate or your ability to apply water when needed. Planting guidelines. The traditional naturalizing method is to pick up a handful of bulbs, broadcast them over the desired area, and then plant them where they fall. To achieve the most realistic effect, you should scatter bulbs so the drift pattern has a greater density at one end or toward the center— as though the bulbs began growing in one location and gradually in-creased to colonize outlying terri-tory. Be sure to plant the bulbs far enough apart so they can grow well and increase without overcrowding.

Growth Cycles

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