Ithought that for the purpose of this exercise, that is, introducing some bulbs that can’t fail to prosper and in most cases, self seed without any intervention, I would use the word ‘bulb’ rather loosely and use it to cover true bulbs, rhizomes and tubers. They all have an amazing root system that has adapted to store their food reserves below ground and therefore cope with periods of drought. Clever stuff.
The bulb catalogues are arriving now and the descriptions of some of the tulips for sale are mouthwatering. Who could resist this description of one of the Darwin Hybrid tulip varieties: ‘jasper red with vague narrow chartreuse green stripes, broad empire rose margin fading into ivory white’ – that’s ‘Ollioules’, or the Greigii tulip ‘Orange Toronto’ which is described as ‘marigold orange edged nasturtium red, yellow green flame on coral pink ground’. I can’t wait for the spring and it is only August!
Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) A planting of these is such a cheery sight as they are one of the first splashes of colour in the garden after mid winter. The little tubers are usually available in the autumn and it is best to plant them as soon as you get them as they are tricky if they get too dry. Actually, you can soak them before you plant to help them along. They look lovely round a tree where they will spread themselves around. You can also collect a few seeds and move them around the garden yourself, although I have heard that they are transplanted by mice. The flowers are low to the ground, and are like little golden yellow cups with a distinctive ruff of narrowly dissected leaves round each flower. Eranthis cilicica is also nice as its leaf has a bronze tone and the flowers are a stronger yellow.
Cyclamen coum have a double bonus in that their glorious little flowers in shades of pale pink, rose pink and white are accompanied by beautifully marked rounded evergreen leaves. They’re perfect in sun or shady areas and soon naturalise covering the ground. Their name derives from the Greek, kyklos, or ‘circle’ as the seed stalk in some species twists and is then taken to soil level where it can take hold. Cyclamen hederifolium are autumn flowering and self seed naturally so you may want to try some of these. Their leaves vary from being heart shaped to ivy shaped and they too have silver markings on their leaves.
Crocus tommasinianus These little crocus only grow to three or four inches high and as their flowers are narrow they are not loud and showy like the Dutch crocus but they are really prolific self seeders and create a carpet of shimmery pale lilac to deeper shades. There are varieties of Tommys like C. ‘Ruby Giant’ which gives a bit more colour as it is a purple violet and C. ‘Barr’s Purple’ is nice with a touch of violet with the lilac. They’ll start flowering in February through to March and on sunny days their flowers open wide to take it all in. They originate in Eastern Europe where they thrive in their millions in woods and shady areas so plant accordingly.
Fritillaria meleagris or the Snake’s Head Fritillary is one of about one hundred species of fritillaria. But these tiny bulbs produce a wiry little stem – about eight inches high – from a base of narrow leaves which is topped by the most exquisite, drooping bell-shaped flowers marked rather like a chequer board. They like full sun, flower in late spring and will self sow. Once established, the seeds seem to move themselves around the garden and they pop up in the least expected places. Combined with cowslips in a meadow they look lovely and as they like a good hot summer after they’ve flowered, next year’s crop should be good.
Narcissi poeticus var. recurvus (Pheasant’s Eye or Poet’s Narcissi) An old favourite. Extremely fragrant, beautiful natives, these are one of the last narcissi to flower but they are a must as they naturalise beautifully and they look an enchanting sight en masse. Pure white recurved petals surround little yellow cups with a green eye edged with a red corona, hence the name, ‘Pheasant’s Eye’. Plant sheets of bulbs in the autumn in borders or preferably in grass where they will bulk up. They take their time doing this but are reliable and totally hardy.
Camassia (Quamash) Quamash is the name given to these bulbs by the Native Americans of the USA as they originate in the Pacific North West. The flowers resemble a loose form of hyacinth and they are sometimes known as wild hyacinths. I’ve noticed that they are becoming quite popular, in particular, Camassia leichtlinii subsp. leichtlinii which have tall creamy white flowers on tall stems. They look great in grass with the Pheasant’s Eye Narcissi. Once you have planted a few (in the autumn), leave them to naturalise. They soon clump up, especially if they have quite damp conditions which they like, and the clumps can be split in due course. I see that Great Dixter’s nursery sell Camassia leichtlinii ‘Semiplena’ which is a semi-double variety held on one metre stems – lovely. Camassia quamash has a deep blue flower and has naturalised in Dixter’s meadows. Flowering periods vary depending on variety from April through to June.
Tulipa sprengeri I once did a short stint in Jack Elliott’s garden which was full of rare treats and in particular, alpines, for which he was famous. I remember seeing a sea of short red tulips with buff outer segments to the flower growing in partial shade in early summer – I hadn’t a clue then what these little treasures were. Their tapered buds, endearing habit of flowering for at least a couple of weeks and their enthusiasm for multiplying, mean that they are a must. The bulbs of species tulips like these aren’t the cheapest but, unlike the cultivars, few of which come back in their full glory after their first season, these get better and better. They flower at the end of May making them surely the last of the tulips. They would look wonderful in a meadow where they can be sown by hand, the circular seeds being ready to be collected up in August. Otherwise you will be rewarded by lots of little seedlings in situ where they can be left to get on with creating their own colony.
Allium siculum (Nectaroscordum) Known as the Sicilian honey garlic, these members of the onion family are very striking and architectural. The flowers emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis and are sheathed in a delicate papery covering. Greenish-white, they are bell-shaped and held on pendulous petioles crowning the top of statuesque stems. Grow these in the front of borders where, rather like the molinias, you can see through them to other plants behind. Or grow in gravel where they will happily self seed. They love sun and a well drained soil if you are growing them in borders and are perfectly hardy. Oh, and they flower in late spring/early summer.
Allium sphaerocephalon (Drumstick allium) This is a much later flowering allium as it flowers through July and into August. It is the sort of plant that looks good anywhere in the border but works particularly well with bronze foliage. The flowers are oval in shape and are made up of lots of densely packed flowers varying in colour from pink to a very dark red but with a green base to the flower head before it is fully open. Lovely in bud, full of movement and much loved by pollinators, it too gently self seeds and appears where you least expect it.
Agapanthus ‘Loch Hope’ Agapanthus make quite a show in late summer. They can be hardy or, in some cases, a little on the delicate side, and have evergreen or deciduous leaves. They also come in myriad forms, heights, size of flower etc. A. ‘Loch Hope’ is one of the tallest and has flowers in a particularly deep blue and really very attractive grey-green strappy leaves. They’re wonderful in a largish pot where they seem to appreciate being rather jammed in, plus a liquid feed until they start flowering. I also love Agapanthus‘Windsor Grey’ with its grey white flowers and tall, elegant stems. It seems to spread its seeds around quite happily as I am sure we only started with one plant but as with many plants, siting the pots on gravel does the trick. A. ‘Windsor Grey’ also bulks up rather nicely. We drag our pots into the garage each autumn as winter approaches but I see that they have great plantings of them at RHS Wisley and suspect that they aren’t so prissy about these as we are, and no doubt they come up very happily year after year without being ignominiously dragged indoors at the end of each season.
- words: Sue Whigham
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