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A Bevy of Bulbs

Originally published in the Ithaca Journal, April 2001
By Mary Hirshfeld
Horticultural Curator, Cornell Plantations

April is the best time to make your bulb selections for next year. You could wait until September and study the pictures on the front of bulb boxes in garden stores or pore over catalog descriptions in August. But right now you have an opportunity to visit gardens and see the flowers themselves. For horticultural purposes, the general term "bulb" also includes corms and tubers. In more precise botanical terms, a bulb is a modified thickened leaf base with fleshy leaf scales (daffodil); a corm is a thickened stem base that, like a bulb, is rounded (crocus); and a tuber is a thickened stem, more elongated than rounded, which carries several buds (dahlia). Recently these have all been grouped under the term "geophyte," a term you may soon see being used more widely in catalogs.

I always look forward to seeing my stands of cyclamineus daffodils pop into flower. More diminutive than the more commonly planted trumpet and large cup daffodils, these top out at about 8 inches in height and carry a single flower per stem, characterized by the swept-back petals that surround the central cup. 'Peeping Tom', one of my favorites, has bright yellow, long-trumpeted flowers with their petals swept back--aptly described as looking like "a mad dog with the wind in his face." The flowers are very long-lasting and heavily textured, coming through late snowfalls unscathed. 'Jenny' is a bit more subtle in form and color, opening with slightly reflexed white petals and a pale yellow small cup that matures to ivory white. This selection has naturalized very well for me, as do most of the cyclamineus daffodils. And, since they are smaller than the more robust, larger-leaved trumpet and large-cupped daffodils, their declining, yellowing June foliage is less noticeable and easier to hide. Jonquilla daffodils are not always the best bet for our climate, preferring mild winters and dry hot summers, but their rich fragrance makes them worth fussing over. 'Treviathan' is an heirloom cultivar that has persisted in the fragrance bed of the Cornell Plantations Herb Garden for 17 years, where its flat-faced, bright yellow flowers perfume the spring air with a wonderful sweet scent.

Among the vast selection of tulips, the early, short-statured kaufmanniana and greigii types tend to be more weather resistant and more reliably perennial than the traditionally planted Darwin, Cottage, and Triumph tulips. Both have low-slung, broad leaves, often striped attractively with rich purple. And both carry their single flowers on strong short stems that range from 6 to 12 inches in height. 'Ancilla' has a softly toned pink flower with a white interior--a nice kaufmanniana that offers a change from the very bright primary flower colors typical of spring. 'Red Riding Hood' is a vibrant deep red greigii that is a great antidote to winter white and gray. Species tulips may lack the langorously graceful tall stems of the more familiar hybrids, but their flower forms and colors can provide welcome variety and their sturdy short stems offer good weather resistance. Tulipa turkestanica, an early spring bloomer, carries multiple, fragrant, narrow-petalled white flowers that open to reveal a soft yellow center. Keep this in a spot that gets hot and dry during the summer and it will perennialize nicely.

Tulips and daffodils rightly dominate the spring bulbscape, but many other lesser known spring gems are worth finding a spot for. Starting off the bulb season neck-in-neck with the snowdrops is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Colonies establish well in partial shade where the soil is protected from hot baking sun during the summer. Once established, these tiny geophytes will form a carpet of yellow, buttercup-shaped flowers-- each sub-tended by a ruff of green foliage.

Another spring bulb that enjoys a shaded summer site is the trout lily, or dogtooth violet--so named because of the oddly-shaped elongated bulb's resemblance to the canine tooth of a very large dog. The tiny yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum) carpets woodlands throughout the county, its delicate nodding flowers held above shiny green leaves marbled with dark purple. 'Kondo' and 'Pagoda' are two vigorous garden hybrids that reach about 8 inches in height and produce glossy rosettes of beautifully mottled foliage topped by elegant nodding yellow flowers with delicately recurved petals. A sizable planting of 'Pagoda' can be enjoyed in the Deans Garden on the Cornell campus, where the plants have naturalized happily under the protective shade of a fringe tree.

A very lovely but still infrequently-grown spring flowering geophyte is Cyclamen coum, the springtime counterpart to Cyclamen hederifolium, a lovely autumn bloomer that enlives Plantations' ground cover collection in October. The diminutive, rounded leaves of Cyclamen coum can either be solid dark green or carry various silver spottings, although the patterns are usually not as exotic or varied as on Cyclamen hederifolium. The flowers--all miniature versions of the florist cyclamen--arrive in a wide range of pinks, from pale rose through bright magenta, with sharply reflexed petals sweeping back from tiny 3-inch-tall stems.

For a sunnier spot that doesn't become baking bone dry during the summer, try the lovely chequered lily (Fritillaria meleagris). A long-lived, easy-care perennial, this European meadow flower displays nodding pink bells marked in a distinctive checkered pattern of light and dark tones, though a pure white form exists as well. A single purchase of bulbs will usually provide a nice mix of pink and white flowered plants. Another attractive feature of this lily is that its slender grassy foliage fades discretely away by early summer. There are many other fascinating Fritillarias, most tending towards exotic black-purples, greens, yellows, and browns. Some are so diminutive they are best sited in a rock garden or container. An heirloom Fritillaria that is reappearing in bulb catalogs is the exotic Fritillaria persica, a robust two-foot-tall plant that produces a tower of purple-black pendant bells. The tiny Fritillaria michailovskyi reaches only 8 inches in height and grows best in a well drained spot. Each stem is topped by two or three nodding two-toned bells of yellow and purple with yellow interiors.

Crocuses and snowdrops pushing through the March snow herald in the spring--a wonder season of color, diversity, and fragrance. Set aside an afternoon to stroll through the Martha Howell Young Flower Garden at Plantations, and enjoy the scents and sights of our many flowering bulbs.