I wish I knew more about bulbs

Apologies to my neighbours, who had a near perfect autumn morning on Saturday partially ruined by several hours of brush-cutter noise as I cut back my rough grass, into which is planted several bulb species and a few very tough perennials.  I thoughtlessly used the term ‘meadow’ when I posted a pic on instagram while raking it up yesterday (a morning way too beautiful to spoil with any kind of mechanical noise), but it’s nowhere near a meadow.

Some jonquils are in bloom by April. So their root growth will have started much earlier than that…

I would have left the cut-back until later, given that it was still looking OK, but for the fact that the grape hyacinths were pushing through.  They start into leaf ridiculously early – in Feb – but don’t flower until spring.  I can’t, off the top of my head, think of another spring flowering bulb that kicks into leaf growth this far ahead of its flowering time.  This makes it a tricky bulb to integrate into mixed planting, or even rough grass, as you simply can’t mow the grass between now and flowering time in about September, so they only cope in really thin grass which doesn’t require cutting, and/or in climates like mine which are sufficiently cold over winter to prevent all grass growth.  That’s not a major hurdle, as they’ve never been seen to be prime candidates for rough grass or meadow anyway, and I admit I find their navy blue a bit weird in that setting.  But these were in a garden bed that I allowed to revert to rough grass, which is how they found themselves in that context.  And after several years of cocking my head left and right, and squinting, wondering whether I liked them or not, someone sent me a pic of an old neglected orchard that was totally overrun with grape hyacinths, and it looked fabulous, so there they stay.  But it means I have to try and remember to cut the grass hard in early February, knowing it won’t get another cut until at least mid spring.

This got me thinking about other surprising stuff about bulbs that’s hardly ever talked about, and all the stuff I wish growers and experts would talk about, but don’t.

An old paddock near our place, in which double daffodils and snowflakes have run charmingly wild

I didn’t realise until recently, for instance, that daffodils kick into root growth very early indeed – also in about February according to some sources.  I’d always assumed you could leave them until late in Autumn, as you can (and I do) tulips and hyacinths.  But apparently not.  You should get your daffodils and jonquils in the ground asap.

The insistence on late planting of hyacinths and tulips was always (so I understood) due to the danger of them kicking into precipitant growth, thinking it’s already spring.  But there’s no such danger of early growth from tulips and hyacinths that you’ve left in the ground, so I can only assume that the late planting advice refers to new purchases that may have been refrigerated.  Having done so, early planting might lead them to think that winter is over and its now spring.  But I’m just guessing this, as in typical style, the literature is so trying to avoid overcomplicating things that it does the opposite, and oversimplifies everything to the point that those of us who really want to understand find it hard to get the info we crave.

Tulips of the ‘single late’ group achieve a reasonable stem length in my climate without lifting and chilling

I recall hounding a bulb grower over the phone about flower initiation, about thirty years back.  I was aware (as no doubt you are) that true bulbs like hyacinths (the dutch ones, not grape hyacinths), tulips and daffodils all enter the winter with the following spring’s flowers fully developed inside of them.  I was confused at the time about the need or desire for refrigeration, and what effect that had on flowering, and he made it clear that the flower is fully formed long before that.  By the 26th of January, he insisted!  Now I have absolutely no means by which to confirm or this – only that that’s what a life-long commercial bulb grower told me.  But the point he was making to me is that refrigeration is about stem-length, not about whether a bulb will flower or not.  

It was one of the most hard-fact based conversations I’ve ever had with anyone about bulbs.  I only wish I could have a lot more of them.

What do you know about bulbs, from either your own experience, or from others with greater experience, that we should all know?


  1. Well I used to think I understood bulbs too and that they were predictable. My climate being very moderate ( small island in Tasmania) with relatively cool summers and warm winters IE little change in temperature year round. Tulips definitely need the fridge. Daffs etc fine. Have had a few strange seasons in the last few years___extreme wet winters and dry summers. Some bulbs have had a few years off and I have given them up for dead and then they popped up again. Didnt know a bulb could remain alive under the ground with no chance to replenish its energy stores for several years at a time. ! How do they know when to come up again?

    1. Aren’t they extraordinary. Same thing happened to me with Paris polyphylla. I moved it – accidentally, along with some other bulbs – from my old house, and it didn’t come up for a few years. Then came up and flowered! How is that possible? It’s had a rest year this year as well. But I’ve had a bit of a poke around in the pot, and it’s solid and robust. Just didn’t come up…

  2. There’s a fairly good literature on saffron crocus – as a commercial crop it seems to have received a fair bit of attention.

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