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Bulbs of Distinction

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 28 September 2001

If I’m going to plant any bulbs this fall, I’d better get them in. What would I like to see come spring?

Tulips! So cheerful to see that color, but I don’t have the energy to plant the ones that only last a year or two with our (usually!) moist New England summers. Tulips, after all, are native to the steppes north of the Caucasus, where the summers are hot and dry. Some varieties are hardier: Darwin hybrids, the Fosterianas, and the Lily-flowered tulips; also among the low-growing, rock-garden tulips the Kaufmanniana and Greigii tulips last well. Those last two groups, and the Fosterianas too, often have maroon markings on the leaves; those are my favorites.

Daffodils: I’d love to have whole drifts of a pale, creamy-colored narcissus in the front yard. Like the ones in front of the Nashua River Watershed Association’s building on Route 119 in Groton. But a lot of narcissus are susceptible to basal rot — the most damaging fungal disease of these bulbs; and I’d like also to get a resistant one. Narcissus bulbocodium, N. poeticus, N. tazetta, and N. jonquilla are the species I’ve found so far that are resistant to this fungus, as is the cultivar 'St. Keverne'.

That other spring standby, the crocus, is most popular in its big, bright hybrid forms — in white, sunny yellow, and purple tones. But the ones I like are smaller, with more subtle colors: the species crocuses. “Species” plants are not hybrids, but the original, natural version of the plant. Why do I like these? Because of their wider variety, and especially their richly-patterned markings. C. chrysanthus ‘Snow Bunting’ for example, is white with delicate lilac feathering on the outside of the petals. On another chrysanthus, ‘Gipsy Girl’, the purple markings are more pronounced, and contrast sharply with the flower’s basic yellow. Many of the species crocus show one color (or combination of colors) on the exterior of the outer three petals, and a contrasting color on the inner three; some have contrasting throats on the inside, or even a band of a third color between the throat and the tips of the petals. Blues, silvery lavender, deep red-purple, mauve, delicate cream-yellows, fawn and yellow-orange and bronzy brown-purples — such a wealth of color! One rare species crocus, C. baytopiorum is even turquoise.

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© Copyright 2001 Catherine Holmes Clark