The Rare Bulbs Native
to the United States
IMPORTANT NOTIFICATION:THE NEW FREEDOM HEIRLOOM
BULB SALE WILL BE HELD SATURDAY-SUNDAY, OCTOBER 12-13, 2019
IN THE PARKING LOT NEXT TO 60 EAST HIGH STREET,
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NOT THE WEEKEND FOLLOWING COLUMBUS DAY.
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This year Harvesting History’s fall newsletter series is going to focus onspring flowering bulbs that are critter resistant and great plants for nourishing pollinators. In the last six newsletters, we discussed Rock Garden Irises(Iris reticulatas), Chionodoxas (Glory of the Snow), Galanthus (Snowdrops),Hyacinthoides (Bluebells) and Species Tulips. In this newsletter, we celebrate America’s very small and very rare collection of bulbs that are native to the North American continent.
Decades ago when I first started studying flower bulbs for spring and fall planting, I was stunned to find out that very, very few bulbs were native to North America. Most of the bulbs that we know and love today are indigenous to Central Asia and in particular to the 40-degree line of latitude north of the equator. From this point of origin, plants carried by man and seeds carried by Nature transplanted rare quantities of bulbs north to within 100s of miles of the Arctic circle and south to near the equator where the heat, for many, destroyed them.
For hundreds of years, Persia and the incredibly talented gardeners of the Ottoman Empire cultivated the wild species bulbs into voluptuously opulent prima donnas of the spring garden. After the Ottoman Empire fell in 1453, European countries were allowed to establish embassies in Persia. When the Europeans saw the lavish gardens filled with these cultivated bulbs, they clandestinely exported samples to Europe and the international love affair began.
The American continent contributed very little to this phenomenon. In fact, there are barely a handful of bulbs that are native to this country. This newsletter will discuss four of America’s most beloved native bulbs. All were discovered and made available to the public during the 19th century. Some were first described during the Lewis and Clark Expeditions of 1804-1806. Some should be a part of every American garden.
is one of the rare spring blooming bulbs that is native to North America. It is also one of the few bulbs that can be grown in the partial shade of deciduous trees. Erythroniums are most frequently yellow-flowered, but there are also white, pink and lavender cultivars. Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ has lemon yellow flowers.
In the words of Anna Pavord, from her outstanding book, Bulb,
“The yellow flowers are supremely elegant, hanging in
sweptback Turk’s caps over huge green leaves.”
Most Erythroniums are native to the Americas. In fact, only one variety grows in Europe. When they were discovered in America, an explosive enthusiasm resulted from European plant connoisseurs. John Parkinson, one of the most famous and respected botanists of the 1600s‘ noted that the plant was an effective aphrodisiac – something that was of great interest in Europe. The Tartars of Russia made a soup from the roots that was nourishing and had great flavor. Pagoda is one of the tallest Erythroniums, reaching a height of 12 inches and can produce up to 4 flowers on its stem. Erythroniums are sometimes grown as much for their mottled leaves as for their flowers, but Pagoda has only muted mottling. However, the leaves are stained beet-red at their base where they emerge from the ground. The name, tuoluminense, comes from the place where it was first found – Tuolumne County, California.
These bulbs have a wide range of hardiness from Hardiness Zone 3 to Hardiness Zone 9, so literally from Maine to Florida. The bulbs should be planted 6 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart. Erythronium show best when planted in drifts of 10 bulbs. Remember to augment the soil in the hole dug for them with at least a 1/4 cup of bone meal. They will naturalize readily growing most frequently through offsets, doubling in number about every 12 months.
For those of you who have a passion for natives in your garden and those of you who bemoan the shade from the deciduous trees in your yard, erythroniums are a lovely choice.
Until the past five years, you rarely found Allium amplectens Graceful Beauty available for sale. This little known and beautiful allium was considered too small to be of interest to the American public who, it was believed, were only interested in growing huge purple lollipops. But, Americans’ interest in and love for the native plants of this North American continent, have promoted this allium to modest popularity today.
This allium is the only allium native to the United States. It produces small, maximum 3 inch diameter, globes with star-shaped, sparkling white flowerswith pale lavender stamens. It is native to California and was first introduced to the American public in 1857. The white globes are borne on stems that reach a height of no more than 14 inches.
Allium amplectens, Graceful Beauty is hardy from Zones 4-8. The bulbs should be planted 6 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart. Remember to augment the soil in the hole dug for them with at least a 1/4 cup of bone meal. For the most pleasing presence in the garden, this allium should be planted in drifts with at least 5 bulbs.
In 1806, as they were heading home from their incredible and historic venture across the American continent to the northwestern territories of America,Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found a lovely, somewhat unique looking plant, growing abundantly on the Weippe prairie in what is now Clearwater County, Idaho.
The oceans of blue blossoms drifted across acres and acres of prairie landleaving Lewis and Clark with unforgettable images of this beautiful flower.Lewis and Clark learned that this flower was an important food source for the Native Americans of the Northwest Territories who dried the bulbs over fires and stored them to eat in the winter. Lewis and Clark collected bulbs from the plants and sent them back to Philadelphia. In 1827, the Scottish plant hunter, David Douglas, began to cultivate Camassia Quamash for commercial production and it became available to the public in 1837.
As the plant made its way into gardens throughout the United States and elsewhere, we learned that, unlike many bulbs, it would thrive in heavy, damp clay soils and in the partial shade of light woodland. It would naturalize around pools and was stunning arranged in drifts on a grassy lawn.
Its flower spikes made great cut flowers, sometimes lasting for nearly 2 weeks, and perhaps its best feature of all is that it seems to be mercifully free of pests and disease. C. quamash is hardy from Zones 4-8. The bulbs should be planted6 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart. Remember to augment the soil in the hole dug for them with at least a 1/4 cup of bone meal. They will naturalize readily, doubling in number about every 12 months.
It is hard to imagine that Camassia Cusickii and Camassia Quamash are related. The bulbs of cusickii are 20 times larger than the bulbs of quamash and yet the plants are nearly identical in size. The Camassias were ‘discovered’ by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.
The first time I saw Camassia cusickii, I was looking at a stand of about 15 bulbs, all of which had bloomed at the same time. The breathtaking powder blue color of the blossoms clustered together gave the surreal appearance of a blue cloud hanging gently over a part of the garden.
Camassia cusickii was introduced into cultivation in 1888. Even today it is much rarer than its darker, purplish-blue cousin, Camassia quamash. Like Quamash, it is native to the Pacific Northwest, but not often seen growing wild. It is hardy from Zone 4-Zone 8, sun to partial shade areas where the soil is slightly moist. Though most bulbs cannot tolerate a moist environment, the Camassias can be grown along stream banks and slightly swampy areas.
Cusickii makes an excellent cut flower which lasts for up to 2 weeks in a vase.
C. cusickii is hardy from Zones 4-8. The bulbs should be planted 6 inches deep and 5-8 inches apart. Remember to augment the soil in the hole dug for them with at least a ¼ cup of bone meal. They will naturalize readily, doubling in number about every 12 months.
As we said earlier in this newsletter, native American bulbs are very rare, but they are so very special that some should be a part of every American garden.