10 Fun Facts About Bulbs

Ill.: www.pinclipart.com & www.freeiconspng.com

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. 

True bulb. Ill.: Amada44, Wikimedia Commons

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!

Tulip field in Holland. Photo: boatbiketours.com

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.

Most tulips are grown in greenhouses for use as cut flowers. Photo: www.flowerfox.com.au

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. 

Gray squirrels love tulip and crocus bulbs, but disdain those of narcissus and hyacinths. Photo: Pixabay

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. 

Corm of a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanium). Photo: www-eiu-edu

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. 

In the 17th century, during the period known as Tulip Mania, a single ‘Semper Augustus’ tulip bulb once sold for 10,000 guilders (about about the cost of a mansion on Amersdam’s Grand Canal). Ill.: Anonymous, commons.wikimedia.org

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!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

3 comments on “10 Fun Facts About Bulbs

  1. I think we studied the bulbs of Holland as much in GE psychology as much as in our horticultural classes. It was within the context of the Tulip Mania of 1636.
    We do not grow many tulips here, but we do grow many cannas. They had always been popular, but became even more popular with the influx of immigrants from Vietnam who used surplus rhizomes as a culinary vegetable. The weediest sorts are the most productive. However, they are like growing corn in the sense that they want quite a bit of water, and generate significant foliar debris, all for minimal production. I would like to grow them in a riparian area where they would get all the water they want, and can be cut and left on the banks.

  2. I will do that, and I won’t be able to plant the tulips I love because of the rodents. 🙁 By the way, have you changed the font on your posts? It seems smaller. Or maybe I need an eye exam.

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