Oxalis strikes fear and loathing in gardener for its weedy nature in gardens – in Mediterranean gardens, Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup) is the chief bane while in temperate gardens, Oxalis corniculata (creeping woodsorrel) and O. stricta (common yellow woodsorrel) challenge the most persistent and patient minds. As with cultivated plants, it takes only one or two villains to tar what would have been an attractive and well behaved group for gardens. The majority of bulbous Oxalis in South Africa which do not have the conquering tendencies as Oxalis pes-caprae make attractive winter pot subjects, disappearing conveniently during summer where they should be kept dry until September. One of the showiest species belongs to Oxalis versicolor commonly known as candy cane sorrel for its swirled red and white buds. It was one of the earliest South African Oxalis introduced to cultivation, having been featured in Volume 5 of the Botanical Magazine or Flower-Garden displayed (1791). William Curtis called it “one of the most beautiful of the many species cultivated in gardens” first discovered by the Scottish botanist and plant explorer Francis Masson in 1774. Curtis did lament the loss of brilliancy when the flowers open, preferring them closed as they do in the pic above.
Although nursery catalogs list Oxalis versicolor as being hardy as north as Zone 7, this hardiness rating should be viewed with suspicion. Bulbs would rot in our cold and wet winters, and one would be advised to grow in pots under lights (winter sunlight do not equal the summer sunlight this Oxalis would have enjoyed in South Africa). For the best effect, the corms should be planted tightly as possible in a pot. Oxalis versicolor may be trigger the collector’s compulsion to seek out other species.
While South America claims the distinction for the center of diversity for the amaryllis family, South Africa holds it own with 18 genera and approximately 240 species. Ever since the Europeans began navigating new oceanic trading routes in search of new colonies, the ornamental appeal of the South African Amaryllidaceae has been well known to gardeners. Foremost in advancing the study of the Amaryllidaceae was the British horticulturist, botanist, and artist William Herbert who specialized in these bulbs at his Spofforth, Yorkshire home. Herbert undertook the ambitious project of delineating and describing all the known members of the Amaryllidaceae in a work that remains the only publication on the family. Subsequent work from other botanists and horticulturists examined specific genera like Cyrtanthus, Nerine, and Haemanthus – the advent of molecular work has elucidated relationships especially for a family that has witnessed intense speciation. Only in 1999 did a general picture emerged when Piet Vorster researched and published the geographical distribution and concentration of the South African Amarylliadaceae. The same publication African Plants: Biodiversity, Taxonomy and Uses included a paper on growth and flowering from Deirdre Snjiman. Now the Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016) has come to step into the gap that brought different information previously scattered in disparate sources.
The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa is certainly a magnum opus on Southern Hemisphere geophytes that spans 45 years, 28 of which were devoted to botanical illustrations by Barbara Jeppe. Jeppe’s daughter Leigh Voigt continued the work for the next 16 years. Graham Duncan is highly qualified to pen this monograph as he has been the Curator of the Indigenous bulb collection at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. He has the uncommon dual talent of being a botanist and horticulturist, which allows him to understand the geophytes thoroughly. If his prior monograph The Genus Lachenalia (Kew Publishing, 2012) is a good indication, then there are no doubts about the quality of Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016). Topping 710 pages, the book weighs 1.7 pounds (0.77 kg), making it impractical to carry in the field. However, the production justifies its price of US $100, being that the paper is thick and smooth, a purple ribbon bookmark is bound to the spine, and color appears faithful to the illustrated plants.
Gardeners will already recognize Amaryllis, Clivia, Crinum, and Nerine amidst the less familiar Apodolirion, Gethyllis, and Stumaria. In mild climates, Amaryllis belladonna has become naturalized, flowering leafless in autumn. However, even within the familiar garden genera are relatively unknown or less common species. Few know the rarer and less easily cultivated Amaryllis paradiscola, which is restricted to one population in the Richtersveld National Park. Clivia miniata is the most horticulturally significant representative, yet other species C. caulescens, C. gardenii, C. mirabilis, and C. nobilis possess the same resilient qualities that make them good houseplants. Graham Duncan calls Crinum acaule ‘a most beautiful species wit large, showy flowers and a strong sweet fragrance’, but it has yet reached the popularity of C. bulbispermum or C. moorei. Nerine sarniensis better known as Guernsey lily now sparkle conservatories and greenhouses with their jewel-like flowers. It sits squarely among 30 or so taxa that are found in South Africa.
The book is peppered with color photographs depicting plants in the wild, such as the one of Cyrtanthus verntricosus after fire. Each color botanical illustration accompanies each species, showing the diagnostic characteristics of the infloresence, individual flower, foliage, seeds, and the bulb. Because leaf development does not always synchronize with flowering, Jeepe and Viogt would examine the specimens over the course of a year. It is a welcome change to defer to the time-honored tradition of using botanical illustrations when color photography has become the norm in monographs nowadays. Information is organized under the following subheadings: description, synonyms, etymology, flowering period, brief history, distinguishing features and affinities, distribution, habitat and life cycle, conservation status, and cultivation.
The alphabetical organization of the genera rather than a phylogenetic one makes the book easy to reference for specific species. However, the minor oversight is the placement of the keys in the back (pages 660-677) rather than the front before the genus and species treatment. It is a departure from other monographs or floras that have keys prefacing the descriptions. Following the keys are sections outlining cultivation of these amaryllids, which can be confusing for a novice grower. Duncan is careful to differentiate the amaryllids in winter rainfall and summer rainfall regions because their cultivation requirements are dissimilar. The inclusion of cultivation guidelines for those gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere is welcome as well. Asexual and sexual propagation is both covered, with seed for the former and the offsets and twin scaling for the latter. Every geophyte have their insectivorous nemesis, and the lily borer (Brithys crini) feeds voraciously on the foliage before moving downwards into the bulb. However, with due vigilance, the borer larvae can be controlled mechanically or with a carbyl-based insecticide. Duncan makes it clear that viral disease and bacterial soft rot can do undue damage and death in amaryllids. A glossary and an index of plant names (including synonyms) is included in the last couple pages.
Graham Duncan must be applauded on the herculean task of writing such a thorough and systematic treatment of the Southern African Amaryllidaceae. It would be a disservice not to honor the mother-daughter team Barbara Jeppe and Leigh Voigt whose unfailing commitment and patience in illustrating these geophytes inspired the book in the first place. The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa will continues confidently in the tradition of botanical references that document the Cape Flora.
A few months ago, we received an email at Plinth et al. from a woman named Caroline, who was seeking information or help regarding certain Narcissi. In doing our best to help, we asked that she elaborate on her story so it could be shared with our readers and others, with the goal of helping Caroline in her search for her family’s bulbs. We ask that after reading this, to kindly share this incredible story with others, through email or other social media outlets to help Caroline and the Backhouse family find the bulbs that are missing from their collection. Thank you so much for your help. – James
Through my mother’s line I am a direct descendent of the Backhouse family, well known horticulturists and daffodil breeders. During the garden replanting and renovation work, my mother suggested it would be a good idea for a member of the family to collect together the remaining Backhouse-bred or introduced plants and bulbs before they are lost to time. My husband and I seem to have entered into a lifetime commitment to the Backhouse daffodils and plants which to date has been demanding and hard work but is certainly the loveliest, most uplifting and exciting project to be engaged in. We are sending this ‘call out’ to anyone who has or knows of a named Backhouse daffodil or plant which they would either photograph and send for our reference material or donate or sell one or two bulbs to the Backhouse Heritage Daffodil Collection in Fife, Scotland. If you are a commercial nursery or horticultural institution with a shipping license. I can send a list of ‘most wanted’ cultivar names, which are also on our web site. We are in the process of seeking National Collection Status for the daffodils. We are not for profit for this is a true labour of love!
We are grateful for the invaluable help we have already received in the ongoing process of gathering together bulbs and images for identification of the Backhouse Daffodils from members of our family, RHS Library at Vincent Square London and the former Daffodil Registrar Sally Kington, RHS Wisley, members of the UK Daffodil Society, Dr David Willis, Jan Dalton, Kew Gardens Archive Library, the American Daffodil Society, and Lynn Batdorf.
Six years of hard but very enjoyable work has gone by in the restoration of the garden, now a beautiful collection of Backhouse Heritage Daffodil cultivars that greet visitors to Rofsie Arts Garden in Spring. They are preceded by Galanthus ‘James Backhouse’, G. ‘Alison Hilary’ and G. ‘Mrs Backhouse Spectacles’. Erica carnea ‘James Backhouse’ flowers on Monastery walk beside the walled garden. Later in the year Lavandula angustifolia ‘James Backhouse’, Correa backhouseana or Backhouse Australian fuchsia along with tree ferns and other plants which were for sale at the Backhouse Nursery during their heyday in the 1800s, growing happily in the garden and glass house.
Backhouse Daffodils changed daffodil breeding forever – William Backhouse, the first of the daffodil breeding dynasty, whose great achievement was breeding the stately Narcissus ‘Emperor’ and the bicoloured N.‘Empress’ in 1865. These cultivars are two of the first triploid bulbs to be raised by a daffodil breeder; although Backhouse would not have known about the word chromosome, he had succeeded in increasing the chromosome count from diploid (14 chromosomes) to triploid (21 chromosomes). Modern daffodils with lineage of these two daffodils in their breeding still dominate divisions 1 and 2 and are still strongly present in division 3 of the RHS Daffodil Register. There has long been a debate about these two daffodils’ parentage—indeed there is a letter from Copeland to Mrs. RO Backhouse asking her as to the parentage, however it is generally accepted that James Backhouse a well-known horticulturist and Williams first cousin’s account in the Garden Magazine is correct – the parentage is believed to be Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus bicolor. However William Backhouse’s great legacy was to create the first known tetraploid cultivar N.’Weardale Perfection’. At its peak ‘Weardale Perfection’ was the clear leader amongst daffodils for its huge bi-coloured flower more than five inches in diameter and its stem at least two foot tall, and was in the greatest demand at the time. Nearly all modern cultivars are tetraploid because they are healthy and strong and the possibilities of which the genes can sit on the chromosomes are vast and varied. ‘Weardale Perfection’ has long been superseded by its grandchildren and great grandchildren but such is the enduring appeal of Narcissus ‘Weardale Perfection’ and triploids N.‘Emperor’ and N.‘Empress’ still in commerce today. William’s son RO Backhouse continued in the family tradition breeding hundreds of seedlings, perhaps his best known being N.‘Backhouses Giant’ and one of his most lovely N.’Lune de Miel’, his wife Sarah Elizabeth Dodgson was a very able daffodil breeder, Engleheart himself a giant in the daffodil world wrote it was possible for people to discern in her work “the vast difference between talent and genius”. Sarah achieved national fame being awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Barr Cup in 1916, and in 1923 Robert astounded the horticultural world with the first pink daffodil which he named ‘Mrs. R. 0. Backhouse’. Robert and Sarah’s son, William Ormiston Backhouse continued the family tradition set by his grandfather. He specialized in red-trumpeted daffodils one of his most notable achievements being ’Brer Fox’, a Division 1 red trumpet.
We believe it’s important to find and save these lovely flowers. Our search for the lost daffodil cultivars has involved driving literally thousands of miles at springtime, making maps of sites we have taken daffodils from (always with permission) on many occasions in sleet, rain and wind which has almost taken me off my feet! There are over 27,000 daffodil cultivars registered in the RHS Daffodil Register, making identification of historic varieties uncommon in commerce today very difficult. We have been particularly lucky in this task for two reasons. Firstly we are not for profit, we are doing this to create a living library of daffodils to save the genetic heritage and achievements of three generations of Backhouse daffodil breeders’ groundbreaking work for posterity. Happily we have found people who want to help with this labour of love in identification. Secondly the older generation in the families can still remember the names of some daffodils, what the flowers looked like and which gardens the plants might still be growing . On occasion they still live in the same family homes and know which daffodils are growing in the garden. We have learnt a lot about the family during this process as often a great aunt or uncle tells us why the daffodil name is of personal significance whether it is named after them or a special place, person or event or family achievement.. When this aural history matches the images we have and the daffodil description in the register it gives us added surety of the cultivar names, we have amassed many pictures with the help of the archives, organizations and people aforementioned from contemporary bulb catalogues or images from horticultural magazines, photographs taken by family and contemporaneous paintings which have proved invaluable in this task. Each year, the daffodil collection is growing. There is a buzz of excitement in the air as spring brings the blooms, and we hope to be able to find some of the missing ones or gain images so we can identify the nameless Backhouse daffodils.
If you know of a named Backhouse Daffodil Cultivar in a collection and can spare a bulb or two for the Backhouse Collection of Daffodils or have a Backhouse Daffodil photo we would very much like to hear from you. Donations of bulbs or visual material are commemorated, but we will also respect your wish to remain anonymous.
Please contact Caroline via the web sitewww.rofsie-estate.comif you would like to support the Backhouse Heritage Daffodil Collection
Artists call for submissions – Rofsie Arts Garden in Fife Scotland is hosting its second annual Art Exhibition – the theme this year is ‘A Response to Gardens and Gardening’ and the exhibition will run throughout July. If you are an artist interested in showing your work in this unique and beautiful space, with a characterful vernacular building also available for indoor exhibition space, please send images of your work and a CV to our web site email address below. Deadline for submission of images May 20th. We only take a small commission – enough to cover exhibition costs but you will be responsible for insurance transportation and return of any unsold work.(we can carefully repack unsold work in its original packing for uplift) If you have any further questions please contact Caroline via the web site.
A good garden should have a few workhouse plants that look good regardless of the growing season, one or two rarities that need a bit of cosseting or sheltered protection, and a smattering of annuals, tender perennials, and bulbs. Pam and Sibylle, the former head gardeners of Sissinghurst Castle Garden, always said that for every three plants, one plant will do well while the other two will be mediocre or do poorly. Where space is limited, one becomes more selective and discriminating on plant selection. As I move into my new house and have one’s garden to call my own finally, I am forced to be catholic about what plants to grow. Visiting nurseries and gardens enable me to see how the plants look at maturity, whether the colors are appropriate for my designs, and what new plants have been introduced. The following herbaceous perennials and grasses, which tend to peak in summer, have caught my eye during my forays.
Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’
Autumn may seem ablaze with incidienary hues, yet a cooling refuge can be found among the dark blue-violets of aconitums. Being poisonous, aconitums do not fall prey to herbivorous critters. Their common name monkshood do resemble the ecclesiastical vestments of the religious higher clergy. The best of the lot is Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’, a worthy tribute to Georg Arends who gave the horticultural world several outstanding perennials. Offset by glossy dark-green leaves on strong stems (5′ to 6′ tall), its glowing rich blue-violet flowers arrive in early to mid October just as the first of autumnal tints appear on trees. Do not plant ‘Arendsii’ in dry soil, which causes the lower stems to defoliate – rich, moist soil will produce the most floriferous plants.
Aruncus ‘Horatio’ first came to my attention at the High Line where Piet Oudolf planted it with carices and Heuchera villosa ‘Brownies’. Its flowers had long finished, yet they did not detract from the plant in any way, providing a textural, if not tonal, contrast with its companions.
Curiously difficult to acquire in the nursery trade, Aruncus ‘Horatio’ was one of the four seedlings (other three being ‘Johannifest’, ‘Woldemar Meier’, ‘Sommeranfang’) raised, evaluated, and named from the German nurseryman Ernest Pagels’ deliberate cross between A. dioicus and A. aesthusifolius. ‘Horatio’ is said to be more drought tolerant and robust than either species, and has this added advantage over Aruncus, despite being white-flowered only. It inherited from Aruncus aesthifolius a finer and more delicate form, and the flowers do not turn brown simultaneously as they do in either parents. Instead, a two bicolor effect develops as the newer flowers open cream and older flowers gradually turn brown. In autumn the foliage can develop autumnal tints.
Hakonechloa macra is a rare example where its variegated versions ‘Aureola ‘ and ‘Albo-Striata’ are more readily available than the straightforward species. It is a telling fact when Internet searches turn up ‘Aureola’ more than the species itself. As long as adequate moisture is provided, the green-leafed version is more tolerant of light than ‘Aureola’, which look unattractively bleached under full sunlight. Tom Stuart Smith, the British garden designer, favors Hakonechloa macra in his commissioned work especially as a ground cover against rigid shapes (in a London courtyard, H. macra swirls around clipped boxwood balls and Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian tree fern).
Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has been the benchmark by which subsequent heleniums have been judged. It does not seem prone to pests and diseases that beget the newer cultivars, and will flower for a long period as long as the flowers are regularly deadheaded. However, Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ has risen to be a equal contender – its clumps multiply within a short time, yielding more divisions to share or spread in the garden, and its cut flowers have remarkable longevity, holding up well and always inviting praise. The flowers of ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ appear more brilliantly saturated with reds, oranges, and yellows than ‘Moerheim Beauty’, and tend to hum with pollinators. In a large garden, I would plant aconitums, asters, dahlias, and grasses with Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ for that grand autumn spectacle.
Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’
Except for a few species like Kniphofia caulescens and K. northiae, kniphofias will rarely win the foliage sweepstakes for their unkempt leaves. Even the flowers can brown in an unappetizing way. Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ is a tidy plant – the grass-like leaves do not kink in a disheveled pile, and the narrow spikes of coral-red flowers are profuse, attracting hummingbirds. It is reliably hardy, a virtue infrequently seen in showier kniphofias. I can imagine clumps of Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ with the steel blue Ergynium planum, serpent-like coils of blue-green Euphorbia myrsinites, and rosettes of orange-flowered Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum.
Phlomis russeliana is not an ‘instant gratification’ candidate for it needs at least three to four years to fulfill its full potential. For the first two years, it may throw a sporadic flower spike, instead focusing on root development (the North American prairie herbaceous perennials, Baptisia and Silphium, behave similarly). The whorled yellow flowers are arranged tier-like on the thick stems. Even if Phlomis russeliana failed to flower, its felted heart-shaped leaves are handsome, offering a solid foliar bulwark against finer textured plants. The most effective combination I have seen was in a trifecta with Stipa gigantea and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at Cambridge Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK. The durable seedheads are worth keeping for winter interest. Phlomis russeliana has been crossed with Phlomis fructiosa to produce ‘Edward Bowles’.
Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum can be unforgivingly floppy if not staked whereas Thalictrum rochebrunianum rockets upward without additional support. Coen Jansen, the Dutch nurseryman whose unerring eye for selecting good garden plants has rewarded us gardeners, combined the best attributes of these two meadow rues through ‘Elin’. From Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum comes moody blue-green foliage suffused with purple and T. rochebrunianum the self-supporting habit. ‘Elin’ can tower to 6′ in ideal conditions – in areas with hot summers, the foliage may become tatty and late summer dormancy can be expected. Because ‘Elin’ is a sterile hybrid, division is the best means of propagation (commercial nurseries depend on tissue culture).
In addition, I have shortlisted the following plants with promising potential and deserving wider evaluation.
Agapanthus ‘Timaru’ – London’s The Financial Times garden columnist Robin Lane Fox singles out ‘Timaru’ and ‘Jack’s Black’ among the best free-flowering New Zealand agapanthus hybrids that are hardy in United Kingdom and other places with moderate winters. He writes: “Two to look for are Jack’s Blue and the vivid Timaru. They send up flowers into early October and are extremely free-flowering at rather different heights. Jack’s Blue is tall, with stems up to four feet, but the flowers appear in quantity in a good shade of rich purple-blue. Marginally, I prefer Timaru, which is about two feet high and extraordinarily generous with a long succession of strong blue flowers on many separate stems.” While agapanthus are not reliably hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region, I’m always on the outlook for good container subjects. Because their foliage is rather boring, agapanthus must be distinct and flower profusely enough to be worth the trouble.
Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey Blue ‘Lisslitt’ – Perovskia or Russian sage is one of the quintessential summer perennials, yet sometimes I find its color a bit lackluster in our heat and the stems susceptible to flopping (save for lean soils). Lacey Blue is reputedly shorter and more floriferious, a better choice for smaller gardens. If the under 18″ height of Lacey Blue proves true, then I am keen to pair it with Agastache rupestris.
Stipa lessingiana – Nassella tenuissima has become a garden designer’s cliche for introducing a naturalistic, cloud-like effect, and one can hardly deny its versatility. Stipa lessingiana, a steppe grass from Caucasus and Siberia is said to be hardier and taller than Nassella tenuissima.
Your post on daffodils reminded me how late spring has been this year in eastern U.S. Winter has been behaving like a dinner guest whose welcome has gone beyond stale, hence our ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and ‘Ice Follies’ have not flowered as they usually do at this time. The daffodils are only emerging, buds intact and tightly sheathed against the elements. However, their resilience has always reassure that winter has relinquished its grip, ushering in spring without delay. I long for warm days, with snow having lost its novelty. My friends’ photographs in the Pacific Northwest already show Corylopsis, rhododendrons, and various spring ephemerals in full glory.
Islands seem to be flush with daffodils – the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of Cornwall, UK, and Tasmania. Warm sunny summers and cold moist winters on the islands create optimal conditions for growing bulbs. The mild climate in the Isles of Scilly allowed the islanders the bragging rights to the first daffodils of the UK, as well as a head start on the cut flower industry; large quantities of cut daffodils were dispatched by boat and then transported on the rail from Penzance to London. In fact, cut flowers formed the cornerstone of the Scillionian economy for over 130 years. The majority, if not all daffodils grown are tazetta-types, which produce up to 15 highly scented flowers per stem. Tazettas need dry warm summers during dormancy for successful flowering, and the long season of Isles of Scilly from May to August, combined with sandy soils, makes a significant difference. Another crucial factor in the industry’s success was the use of windbreaks, an absolute necessity on the gale-exposed islands. Growers depended on two salt-tolerant and wind-resistant New Zealand shrubs, Pittosporum crassifolium and Olearia traversii.
Daffodils are popular in Tasmania where the Tasmanian Daffodil Council promotes them. You can expect at least three months of daffodils if varieties selected for different bloom periods are planted, and the cold nights certainly enhance flower longevity. The nucleus of Tasmania’s daffodil industry began in the 1920s when several enthusiasts imported bulbs from England and started breeding programs themselves. Their work was exhibited at the Hobart Horticultural Society’s annual daffodil show. Dr. Tim Jackson, one of the early enthusiasts, eventually started a business still going strong today. Evidently his passion rubbed off on the second generation, and one of the Jacksons who fought in the World World II even kept a pot on the British naval warship HMS Wanderer. A cousin, a warplane navigator, was once invited to a country estate near his airfield where the owner boasted a new daffodil, exclaiming: “You’ll have never seen anything like this before”. One only can imagine the owner’s surprise when the cousin recognized the hybrid and credited its origin to his grandfather.
On a blustery gray day, my friends and I drove out a hour away for an open day hosted by Jackson Daffodils near the Southwest National Park, a scenic area. Their bulbs can be bought from an Oregon firm who sells them for a princely sum. They are not the ‘bulk bag’ types one can purchase inexpensively at the local home improvement center. The fields were resplendent with varieties in whites, yellows, oranges, and pinks, and the gusts played up the flowers’ robust gaiety. Even my friend’s dog was excited, recharged by the new scents of the landscape. Who knew how much glee these flowers imparted? Forgetting the dull skies, we left smiling from the simple pleasure of seeing them.
Across from my friends’ coastal property used to be a commercial bulb farm that exported bulbs and cut flowers to the mainland. Although the majority of the bulbs were dug up and sold before the operation ceased, surviving remnants still sprout defiantly each spring. I learned from my friend that flowering bulbs can be dug up and transplanted without problems, taking out the problematic guesswork that accompanies dying or dormant bulbs. The bulbs need to be planted deep. After obtaining permission, he was able to replicate those naturalistic groups of daffodils without that hodgepodge effect. At first I was skeptical, only to be convinced the following spring when the same bulbs returned to flower. They look terrific under the vibrant green drapery of silver birches.
No matter how many bulbs we dug up, there were always more. The sandy loam soil made it easier to retrieve the entire plants, bulb and all, easily from the ground. Occasionally we did accidentally cleave a bulb, but once you gained experience, you were able to gauge how deep and what angle your spade went in, teasing out the plants out without much damage.
The Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) is considered the centre of diversity for Narcissus. Several years ago, I remember seeing wild white daffodils growing in wild scrub near the Spanish border – we never disembarked from the car to identify the species. Perhaps one of the days you will have a chance to drive to northern Spain and bear witness to fields of wild daffodils. Sad as Narcissus and Echo’s fates were in Greek mythology, a love affair with daffodils is hardly narcissistic.
The porcelain perfection of the snowdrop etched with green is the zeitgeist of winter thawing to spring. Its bravery in breaking through the cold earth, its promise of spring, lures admirers out in freezing weather. Most simply enjoy the white sheets of flowers carpeting the ground. Some study the miniscule markings of green, yellow, and white in hopes of discovering a new variety. The most definite reference Snowdrops by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis, and John Grimshaw (2001) boasts over 200 snowdrop varieties, some of which fetch large sums for a single bulb.
Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii are the two most commonly cultivated species, with G. plicatus featuring here and there. Galanthus nivalis naturalizes well, forming those white drifts that have become a wintertime ritual in the Northern Hemisphere. Its leaves and flowers are smaller proportioned than those of G. elwesii, a giant by all snowdrop standards. Galanthus elwesii have beautiful blue-green leaves and bold markings on the inner parts of its flowers. Less common species include the bright green-leafed G. woronowii and autumn flowering G. reginae-olgae. Snowdrops do hybridize with each other, yielding progeny of varying vigor and traits that make galanthophilia, the love of snowdrops, a never ending obsession. Galanthophilia can escalate to feverish heights – fingers twitch, knees bend, eyeballs flicker without persuasion at the sight of snowdrops naturalized in churchyards, coppiced woodlands, or old gardens. The temptation to discover a novel snowdrop, one with distinguishable markings like a tattoo, is ever persistent, and indeed a rare snowdrop can easily fetch a princely sum as high as 500 dollars per bulb.
As long as fertile soil, good drainage, and adequate light are provided, snowdrops are not particular about their conditions. They do need good light during their growing season – and it is not in shortage when deciduous trees are still denuded in wintertime. Good companion plants are crocuses, cyclamen, and winter aconites. Hellebores are permissible as long as their old foliage does not compete with snowdrops emerging and growing.
Propagation is either through division (‘in the green’) or twin-scaling. The practice of moving ‘snowdrops in the green’ is controversial – some people still stand by it while others discourage it, preferring to wait until the foliage begins to die down. Lifting snowdrops in the green risks damaging roots, which can be detrimental for future growth. If one elects to move snowdrops in the green, minimize root disturbance and be prompt about watering after planting in a well-situated location. Ideally late May to early June is best for transplanting dormant bulbs, and careful labeling will prevent identification mishaps and fruitless searches at a time when the garden is bursting with plants. Twin-scaling induces young bulbs to form from meristematic tissue of ‘damaged bulbs’. This technique is not for the impatient or inexperienced, and those wanting to increase stocks of rare and desirable selections have gone this route (after much practice of course!).
Ideally spring bulbs should be planted in late October to mid-November. Often do we find ourselves spending more time in garden cleanup or are simply victims of procrastination. And sometimes it can be too irresistible to purchase bulbs heavily discounted at garden centers and nurseries, and lavish plantings of tulips and other bulbs treated as ‘annuals’ can be realized without being cost-prohibitive. Last year I bought several dozen tulips that created a splendid display in my parents’ garden. Late bulb planting has the advantage of allowing you to see clearly where they can be planted after the beds have been tidied up. Although one can run the risk of snow and unseasonally cold temperatures, bulbs can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen solid. Some of the bulbs may be slightly mildewed or moldy, but provided that they’re still firm, they are not lost causes. Planting them in the ground usually eliminates the problem, and the bulbs generally emerge flowering none the worse for wear in spring. ~Eric