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Friday, April 19, 2024
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Bulbs shine a variety of light

I would happily describe myself as a huge bulb lover, but somewhat ironically, I am also a small bulb lover.

Many of my favourite bulbs are diminutive, to put it mildly. But, as the Head Gardener always says, good things come in small packages.

When our elder son was born, in late July more than 40 years ago, I was able to take a bowl filled with one of the early flowering “snow crocus” varieties to them.

The wild species, C. chrsyanthus, grows in south Europe, and has golden flowers. It is very popular for European gardens, literally flowering in the snow. There are many cultivars available in the local market, mainly with subtle, subdued tones. The ones I took up to the Masterton maternity ward were the lovely ‘Cream Beauty’. These have the softest yellow flowers, highlighted by a splash of orange stamen in the centre.

There are others equally as entrancing. ‘Purity’ has [surprise, surprise] pristine white flower; ‘Prins Claus’ is similar, except the exterior petals have purple striations, and ‘Blue Pearl’ has some white petals, and some touched with purple. All are very easy to grow, and about half the size of the larger Dutch crocuses that most people are more familiar with.

There is a section of irises that are known for flowering just about as early and being just a tad bigger than the crocuses – the reticulata irises. These take their name from the fine mesh that encircles the bulbs, rather than any flower characteristic, and is derived from species that grow wild in Western Asia.

The tiny bulbs will produce flowers that look very much like a much smaller and more refined version of the florists’ Dutch Irises, although the colour range is not quite as large yet. That will change in the years ahead, as several plant breeders have taken to working with this group of plants and have already made some significant advances in the range of colours and forms available.

For now, the main colours available tend to be in the blue to purple range.

I have a soft spot for ‘Clairette’, as it was the first of these I grew, 50 or so years ago. It has light blue standards [the upper petals] and dark blue falls, with a very prominent white signal patch where the petals overlap. ‘Alida’ is lighter coloured with less contrast, while ‘JS Djit’ and ‘Rejoice’ are maroon coloured.

For those seeking more muted tones, ‘Frozen Planet’ and ‘Painted Lady’ are both very pale – white with a wash of blue over the falls for the former, and a widespread wash of purple for the latter.

Our family has been swapping and sharing another dwarf iris for many years – the oddly coloured Iris tuberosa. This novelty, once known as Hemerodactylus tuberosa, is sometimes called the snake’s head iris, derived from the odd shape of the tubers, rather than anything to do with the flowers.

The blooms are weirdly coloured, with light green standards, and almost-black velvety falls. In a warm, dry spot they will quickly clump up, and give a great display of their peculiar flowers, usually early in August.

Another group of dwarf bulbs that hold family connections are the various members of the Muscari family. These are small bulbs, usually with blue flowers, not unlike a miniature hyacinth. They are sometimes known as “sailor boys” in New Zealand, but I have not seen the term used elsewhere.

I know that’s what my mother called them, so that’s good enough for me,

She had a warm, north-facing bed that had hundreds of these spring flowering charmers. With some varieties that is almost a given, as they will increase quite quickly, especially the more common forms.

Some of the other varieties are much slower to increase.

The most easily found and cheapest form is ‘Blue Beauty’, the common ‘grape hyacinth.’

It is hardier and more resilient than some of the other cultivars and is great for naturalising. Among the other forms are some interesting colour variants. ‘Pink Surprise’ was a surprise to me alright – it is not pink, or rather I should say it is a very, very pale pink. On the other hand, it does have a nice fragrance, so maybe that makes up for the lack of colour.

‘Siberian Tiger’ is, as you would expect, white, and is long-lived and hardy. I have found ‘Peppermint’, which has white tipped blue flowers, to be somewhat miffy, and not a reliable flowering plant, but maybe it will settle in and do better.

‘Touch of Snow’ has a similar colour pattern but the blue tones are deeper.

For the really odd, and slightly taller muscari, you should try ‘Plumosum’. Instead of the tight little blue flowers of the other varieties, this has feathery purple flowers. Odd but charming.

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