‘You can cut all..’


You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming. – Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet

île de jonquilles

Dear Jimmy,
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.
Narcissus 'Ice Follies' flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer - these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.
Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer – these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.
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
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)
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.
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia
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.
Tazettas have been 'rescued', collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.
Tazettas have been ‘rescued’, collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.
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.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.
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.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

Late Bulb Planting

Tulip bulbs

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

Black Tulips


“I shall find the black tulip,” said Cornelius to himself whilst detaching the suckers. I shall obtain the hundred thousand guilders offered by the Society.” (La Noire Tulipe by Alexandre Dumas)

The fact that black, like blue, is commonplace in our contemporary lives, but rare in the natural world is a beguiling one. Black diamonds, black orchids, and black roses have that particular mystique and cachet.  What we perceive as black in flowers is purple that verges on the darker end of the spectrum close to black. Late to flower, usually in May, black tulips seem a dark afterthought to the earlier tulips in softer and warmer hues, like the arrival of the evil fairy Maleficient at Sleeping Beauty’s christening pageant. They are difficult to place in the garden, deadening plantings if not carefully paired with zingier colors. When cut and admired closer in a vase, black tulips are a sensual treat magnified by the inky blue stamens and white edges revealed after the petals come apart.


Spring Foliage Kaleidoscope


This native trio at Jenkins Arboretum, which includes Podophyllum peltatum (mayapple), Packera aurea (golden ragwort), and Allium tricoccum (ramps), demonstrates the success of intermingling for foliage effect  – the wheel-like Podophyllum leaves appear to pirouette across the planting, the lance-like Allium leaves add linearity, and scalloped leaf margins of Packera is a textural piece de resistance. More so is the green monotony broken up by the mottling of the Podophyllum leaves and the yellow flowers of Packera. The three plants knit together for a effective weed suppressing planting.

Only Packera aurea will persist for the remaining season after Allium and Podophyllum have gone underground.


Delphinium tricorne

Delphinium tricorne

Delphiniums incite reverence for their crystalline blues, purples, and whites rare in the floral world. They seem even rarefied when their temperament is best appeased in cool, cloudy climates. Countless gardeners have coddled delphiniums with variable success  – some, including myself, enduring heartbreak at seeing flowering stems broken from wind and rain or the plants succumbing to summer heat, while others stand elated, like proud parents at their children’s graduation.

North America is home to approximately sixty species, most of which are found in the West Coast and Interior West (Flora of North America Vol. 3). Here in eastern Pennsylvania, we grow Delphinium tricorne. Our native species may not have the wattage power of its gargantuan cousins, yet its deep blue to violet hue more than compensates in intensity. Even a solitary plant can steal the scene in the crowded spring arena. They inhabit deciduous and sloped woodlands, moist ravines, and partially shaded rock sides throughout eastern U.S. (from Pennsylvania to Nebraska and outwards to Minnesota). Their flowering coincides with trilliums, shooting stars (Dodecatheon), foamflowers (Tiarella), and phlox (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera), all of which enjoy the same moist woodland conditions.  At Mt. Cuba Center, Greenville, Delaware, drifts of D. tricorne are planted with Polemonium reptans (Jacob’s ladder), the lighter grey-purple of the latter setting off the iridescent violet of the former.

Like other spring ephemerals, D. tricorne disappears in summer until the following spring. The tuberous rootstock allows the plant to withstand drought and multiply vegetatively via offsets. Seed, which resemble tiny black beads,  can be harvested in early summer. They require stratification and seedlings should be left in the containers before they are large enough to transplant individually in pots or in the garden.


Bleeding Heart


Flowering cheerfully now, Lamprocapnos spectabilis (Linnaeus) T. Fukuhara (bleeding heart) is such a traditional cottage garden favorite in Europe and North America that its Far Eastern origin (China, North Korea, and Russia) comes as a surprise. It is considered one of the Scottish plant explorer Robert Fortune’s most successful re-introductions in 1846, although several years would pass until the plant was considered hardy enough outdoors (the Victorians would cultivate L. spectabilis as a cool conservatory pot plant for display). Fortunately its cultivation was and is undemanding – plants are happy in a partial shady site and moist well-drained soil.  Because L. spectabilis retreats into summer dormancy, it calls for plant partners that cover the vacated space. An excellent companion would be Brunnera macrophylla (forget-me-not) with its broad heart-like leaves and airy dots of blue flowers that coincide with the bleeding heart flowers. Hostas and ferns are good as well, expanding their foliage as L. spectabilis begins to die down.


The distinctive flowers no doubt invoke ‘bleeding hearts’ and surely inspired people in their fanciful writings and art. Edward Lear somewhat appropriated the floral structure for his nonsensical cartoon entitled ‘Manypeeplia upsidedownia’.


Edward Lear’s “Manypeeplia upsidownia” from Nonsense Botany (1871)

Although ‘Manypeelia upsidownia’ will remain only in our fantasy realm, several variants exist in cultivation – ‘Alba’ or ‘Pantaloons’ has pure white flowers that have enlighten many a woodland garden. ‘Gold Heart’ originated as a sport at the late Hadpsen Garden, Somerset, and takes the show farther with its yellow foliage. Some gardeners may find the pink and yellow rather strident, although the colors are rather striking in my opinion, inspiring me to plant dark pink or purple tulips. Nori and Sandra Pope used Tulipa ‘Greuze’ to pop forth from ‘Gold Heart’ at Hadpsen. Another chance find from Phyllis and Lyle Sarrazin in British Columbia is ‘Hordival’ (sold under Valentine Red), considered a significant color break in its dark red flowers and stems and gray-green leaves. Tulipa ‘Flaming Spring Green’ or  ‘Jan Reus’ would be good tulips for ‘Hordival’.