In spring, garden centers and box stores, sometimes even supermarkets, put up splendid displays of summer-blooming bulbs: cannas, callas, tuberous begonias, dahlias and many more. It’s a real pleasure to go rummaging through the displays looking for just the right summer bulbs for your garden! Each package bears a card with a beautiful color photo of the plant at the peak of its bloom, a promise of the flowering to come. How could any gardener resist that?
Well, perhaps you’d better try, because very often the bulbs* in the package are dead, dead, dead!
*In this text, I use the generic term “bulb” indifferently to mean true bulbs, corms, tubers, tuberous roots and rhizomes.
Stores Are Not Meant for Bulb Storage
To be fair, when these bulbs were harvested last fall, then sorted, bagged and carefully stored under refrigeration and constant humidity, they were in peak condition. No serious merchant packs dead bulbs for sale: it just doesn’t make for good business.
But after the bulbs are shipped to your local store (the vast majority of summer bulbs are exported from the Netherlands), the quality of storage drops dramatically. In stores, they are inevitably placed in displays designed to catch the eye, but without any kind of refrigeration. Under constant heat and dry air, the bulbs begin to shrivel, gradually drying up. The longer they remain in the store, the worse shape they are in. And many simply die.
Look Before You Buy
Typically, summer bulbs are sold in ventilated plastic bags partly filled with coconut fiber or sawdust to help reduce drying. And these bags are transparent, which is good news for gardeners, as you can see inside the bag. Before buying, therefore, manipulate the bag, pushing aside the substrate to check the condition of the bulb. Is it still fleshy and solid or is it brown, shriveled and dry? It’s especially important to look for a small shoot (or several shoots, depending on the type of bulb) at its top. The shoot can pink, pale yellow, white or green. If it looks healthy, the bulb is still fine. If there is no shoot, or it is dry and brown, the bulb is probably dead.
In my experience, at least a third of the bulbs still on display in stores will be dead after a month (that would be early April in the Northern Hemisphere) and more than half will have died after two months (early May).
Do the merchants diligently remove the bags of dead bulbs from the shelves to protect their customers? Well, not from what I can see! Usually, dead bulbs remain on display until they sell or until the season is so advanced no one would logically want to plant them.
Get a Refund
If you didn’t think to inspect the bulbs before buying them and all or most of them are dead at the planting time, ask for a refund. Yes, you’ll need to keep your receipt!
You are not sure if they’re alive or not? Plant them and see what happens. If nothing sprouts, ask for a refund anyway. It’s your right!
Tough Bulbs, Fragile Bulbs
Some bulbs hold up much better under store conditions than others. I find gladiolus and their close relatives (crocosmias, acidanthères, freesias, etc.) particularly tough. They are often still in great shape come June!
Dahlia, canna and lily bulbs fall into the moderately tough category: usually they hold on for about two months, although by then they may be starting to shrivel. As long as the sprouts look healthy, they’re fine. Of course, the other thing they tend to do is to start sprouting inside the bag, forming long, stringy, pale growth. These ungainly bulbs may be a bit awkward to plant, but at least they’re not dead and will probably recuperate when you plant them out. You needn’t necessarily shun them.
Some bulbs, on the contrary, are very short-lived under store conditions: tuberous begonias, gloxinias, ranunculus, etc. Barely a month after they were put on sale, many will be dead. The worst, in my experience, is the climbing lily (Gloriosa rothschildiana). They’re often quite dead after only a few weeks on display.
The florist’s anemone (Anemone coronaria) is a tough one to figure out: it’s one of the few bulbs produces no sprout or indeed, any sign of being alive while its dormant. The small tubers are as hard a rock and look thoroughly desiccated, but are usually still alive. Take a chance on them, soaking them in water for 24 hours before you plant them out, and they usually come around, even after months in the store.
In general, however, you should apply the following rule when you’re buying spring bulbs: no shoot, no purchase!