For most gardeners, fall rhymes with bulb planting. As our other plants go dormant, we can fill any empty spaces with beautiful spring-flowering bulbs, like tulips, narcissus, crocus and hyacinths. And they’re widely available, both on-line, garden centres and even in supermarkets!
So, to put you in the proper mood for planting bulbs, here are some interesting tidbits about bulbs that you might not have known.
1. Not all “bulbs” are bulbs. True bulbs are underground vertical shoots with modified leaves that are used for food storage. Plants in the lily family (tulips, lilies, muscaris) and amaryllis family (narcissus, amaryllis, etc.) often produce true bulbs. But other plants evolved different underground storage organs: corms, tubers, rhizomes and many more. The actual term for all these plants is “geophyte” … but no one is going to scold you if you call them all bulbs!
2. The Netherlands (Holland) is the largest producer of bulbs in the world, producing about 77% of the world’s supply. Some 4.2 billion bulbs are grown there annually, half of which are exported. Dutch bulbs are sold all over the world except in Antarctica.
3. Most flower bulbs are sold, not for planting in home gardens, but for use as cut flowers in the florist industry. In some cases, like tulips and gladiolus, over 90% of the bulbs grown are used as cut flowers.
4. Almost all spring bulbs need a cold winter in order to bloom. In tropical areas, spring bulbs like tulips, hyacinths and narcissus have to be potted up and placed in cold storage for several months, but will then bloom when exposed to light and heat. This is called forcing.
5. Although the Netherlands is today famous for its bulb production, in fact, no bulb is actually native to that country. In fact, in most of the country, the soil is too moist in summer for bulbs to survive and they must be lifted in late spring and replanted in the fall. All the bulbs now grown in the Netherlands—including their famous tulips!—were originally imported from other countries.
6. The North American eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is a serious predator of bulbs and has, unfortunately, been introduced to temperate areas throughout the world. Where squirrels are a problem, consider growing bulbs other than tulips and crocus. Most other bulbs (narcissus, hyacinths, etc.) are either unpalatable to squirrels or poisonous to them. They may dig up or nibble one, but will soon learn to leave the inedible ones alone.
7. The world’s heaviest “bulb” (actually, it’s a corm) is that of the titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) that can weigh up to 340 lb (154 kg)*. That’s not so surprising when you learn that the plant’s unique leaf can measure up to 20 feet (6 m) tall and 16 feet (5 m) across.
8. Bulbs actually plant themselves! Most have contractile roots: as they grow, the roots pull them downwards to the appropriate depth.
9. Once highly regarded, broken tulips (those with streaked blossoms immortalized by the painter Rembrandt, like the old cultivar ‘Semper Augustus’, the most expensive tulipe ever sold) are caused by a non-lethal but easily transmittable virus. As a result, their culture is illegal in the Netherlands.
10. Some of our favorite flower bulbs are edible. Tulips, cannas, alliums, lilies, muscaris, dahlias and camassias are examples of bulbs you can eat if you want, although you’ll find many of them, including tulips, need careful preparation to be of much interest. Don’t just try any bulb, though, as some bulbs, including narcissus, hyacinths, amaryllis and so-called death camas (Zigadenus venenosus), are poisonous.
Now, get out there and plant a few bulbs!