Beach gardeners have a tough time keeping our soft, sandy soil watered. This time of year, that makes us lucky. Tulips and most of the other spring bulbs think sandy, well-drained soil is ‘absolutely fabulous’. They’re tickled pink (and red and yellow and peach…) when they have a moist spring followed by a good summer baking.
I’m old-fashioned when it comes to flowers, so I like good old tulips and daffodils. I’m not so fond of teeny-tinies like snowdrops (Galanthus) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). I do like crocus, but the squirrels like them even more than I do, and crocus are an expensive kind of animal feed.
Spring-flowering bulbs are now bulging from bins at garden centres and hardware stores, as well as in the pages of bright catalogues. So take a look at some useful info on bulbs, along with a few wild and wonderful facts.
Bits and pieces about bulbs:
• Spring-flowering bulbs, which we plant in autumn, refuse to bloom without a winter’s sleep. Folks in the land of everlasting warmth and sunshine have to do without tulips and daffodils.
• Each bulb is a complete package ready to bloom. In fact, if you cut it open, you may be able to see the baby flower squeezed inside. So fertilizing at planting time isn’t a big deal for new bulbs.
• Tulips have a very long history, starting out in the dry valleys and mountains of west Asia, where temperatures range from blistering hot to bone-deep cold. For about five bucks a bulb, you can still buy something close to the original tulip, Tulipa acuminata, which has twisted, skinny, pointed petals in dull yellow and red.
• I’ve heard that the word ‘tulip’ is related to the contemporary term ‘Taliban’. Don’t fall for that one. Several sources say that ‘tulip’ began as an old Persian word ‘dulband’, meaning ‘turban’. ‘Taliban’ is a hybrid of Arabic and Indo-Iranian, meaning ‘students’ (amaze your friends with this one).
• Tulips can be cooked and eaten (though I don’t know why you’d want to). Don’t try that with daffodils, though. Daffs are poisonous to people and animals.
• Dramatic tulips with one colour streaked or ‘flamed’ over a background colour are often called ‘Rembrandt tulips’. Though the famous artist rarely painted tulips himself, he lived at a time when people were mad for tulips, and many Dutch painters portrayed flamed/streaked tulips in their work.
• Avoid getting daffodil sap on your skin. It contains tiny calcium oxalate crystals that may irritate your hands.
• Narcissus is the proper Latin name for daffodils. This is good to know because they have other names in other languages: ‘Osterglocke’ (Easter bell) in German, for example.
• When you’re buying bulbs of any kind, choose the largest ones. They should feel firm and solid, without nicks from shovels. If you can find daffs with two ‘necks’, or points – those may send up two flowering stalks.
• Plant bulbs pointed-end up, three times as deep as their height from the base. Tulips and crocus – favourite squirrel food – can go even deeper. Tulips, as deep as 8 inches (20 cm); crocus, as deep as 6 inches (15 cm).
• Deadhead tulips, daffodils and hyacinths to keep them from forming seed. The energy that goes into making seed will weaken the bulb.