PHOTO OF MRS. JAMES’ ORIGINAL BLUE GARDEN FROM 1913
The Rarest Color in Nature-
Six Bulbs That Produce
Dazzling Displays of Blue
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At Harvesting History we often are asked to help customers choose flowers based on color. “I am looking for reds or purples or whites, etc” The most frequently requested color is true blue, not bluish purple or periwinkle blue, but true blue. Ironically, the rarest of all pure colors in the flower world is true blue. There are thousands, perhaps more, of bluish-purple blossoms, but true blue occurs infrequently, especially during the summer and autumn seasons. Spring is the one season where there are several bulbs varieties that produce plants from which true blue blossoms are generated. This newsletter discusses six bulbs that produce true blue blossoms. We have not included Muscari Valerie Finnes because it was discussed in the last newsletter and Rock Garden Iris Alida because we are discussing Rock Garden Iris Harmony. Both of these bulbs produce true blue flowers as well.
In the garden, blue is such an enchanting color that some gardeners create totally blue gardens or blue and white gardens. One of the legendary “Blue and White” gardens was located in Newport, Rhode Island at Beacon Hill House, the residence of Mrs. Arthur Curtiss James. The photo above is of her original Blue Garden.
In 1913, on a beautiful summer evening, Mrs. James invited a number of her friends to “witness the dedication of a garden”. As the sun set, the guests were treated to a re-enactment of a Greek play as it had been performed for a 15th century Italian hostess and 30 of her friends. The background, foreground and midground were Mrs. James’ stunning Blue Garden. As the play continued, the guests were lavishly entertained with an electric light display the likes of which none of them had ever seen. The night and Mrs. James’ Blue Garden became an unforgettable fairytale for all who had attended.
We don’t need to have the means nor the resources to create a Newport-style blue garden. The blue that nature provides us each spring with just a few bulbs can create a fairytale-like experience for each of us. The blues of the following six bulbs will tantalize your visual sense and stimulate your imagination – the pleasure evoked will be entirely yours.
Chionodoxa forbesii is a flower whose name we cannot pronounce, but one that most of us have seen in the spring. The name, Chionodoxa, comes from two ancient Greek words, chion meaning snow and doxa meaning glory, hence the nickname, Glory of the Snow. This bulb was introduced into cultivation in 1881 when it was named to honor the naturalist, Edward Forbes, who in his travels through western Anatolia in 1842 had probably collected specimens.
Chionodoxa is native to the mountains of southwestern Turkey where it grows at the snowline above 8,250 feet. They are hardy nearly everywhere from Zone 3-Zone 9. This little blue flower with its white star shaped center is an early bloomer that is deer resistant.
Each bulb produces from 4-12 flowers. The bulbs should be planted 4-6 inches deep and 2-3 inches apart. Remember to add 1/4 cup of bone meal to the hole where you are planting the bulbs. Unlike Galanthus, Chionodoxa can be moved and divided every 3-5 years. Chionodoxa grows very well in a pot, and if growing in a pot, 5 bulbs produce a lovely effect.
In the words of Anna Pavord,
“A. caeruleum has 20 in. (50 cm) of stem, which leads you to expect something rather splendid at the top. In fact the flower is only about 1 and 1/4 in. (4 cm) across, but the color is good, clear sky-blue. If you plant enough of them, the effect is excellent.”
She is completely right. You plant Allium Azureum because of its rare, stunningly pure blue color, and the only way to really enjoy the color is by viewing it in drifts of at least 10 bulbs.
The plant is native to Siberia, so it is very rugged. It was introduced into Europe and the British Isles in 1830. As noted in BULB,
“Sometimes the flowerhead produces a miniature replica of itself, which grows out from the center of the ball on a stem 5-6in. (12-15 cm) long. It creates a charmingly dotty effect, as though the flowers had forgotten that they already had done what they set out to do.”
Allium Azureum tends to bloom later than many of its cousins, sometime during early summer. The bulbs should be planted 3-4 inches deep and 1-2 inches apart.
Iris reticulata Harmony was introduced in 1953. It is the darkest of the Rock Garden Irises with standards and falls that vary from dark purple to dark blue. Sometimes the standards and falls exhibit white or yellow blotches.
This iris came from a cross between Iris histrioides ‘Major’ and the original Iris reticulata produced by CJH Hoog in the Netherlands. The result, ‘Harmony’, was a plant whose blossoms were far larger than either of its parents. In fact, to this day, Harmony produces some of the largest blossoms in its class.
Because of their tiny size, it is recommended that you plant Iris Reticulatas in drifts of 10-25 bulbs. They multiply quickly, doubling in number approximately yearly. Iris reticulata bulbs are prone to splitting. Sometimes deep planting prevents this. The recommended planting depth is 4 inches with 4 inches between bulbs. To prevent splitting, try planting at a depth of 6 inches.
The English Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, were introduced from the Mediterranean into the British Isles approximately 500 years ago. The plants loved the English environment and the Brits loved the plants. The result was that hundreds of acres of English woodlands became populated with this prolific flower and even today, in spring, vast areas of English woodland are carpeted in the periwinkle blue of the English Bluebell. Most Brits believe that the English Bluebell is native to their country, but, in fact, the English Bluebell is not native to the British Isles. This does not discourage the Brits from hailing “their bluebell” as the national symbol of spring.
Non-scripta is quite vigorous. It is hardy from Hardiness Zone 4-Hardiness Zone 7 and will flourish in shade and partial shade. They will easily double or triple in number each year. They are best planted in drifts of 10 bulbs, but 5 bulbs will still create a presence in the garden during their first year. The plant produces 18 inch flower spikes which frequently droop near the top of the spike. The flowers are usually pale blue often with a deeper blue stripe down the middle of each petal.
The bulbs should be planted at least 6 inches deep and 3-4 inches apart. When planting, add 1/4 cup of bone meal to each hole. The bulbs should be divided every 4-5 years. If they are not divided, they will cease to produce flowers.
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.
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 1/4 cup of bone meal. They will naturalize readily, doubling in number about every 12 months.
Cusickii makes an excellent cut flower which lasts for up to 2 weeks in a vase.
If you desire blue in your garden, this is as blue as it gets. Though the blossoms are tiny, no more than 1/4 inch, their striking blue color draws the eye to them immediately. The Scilla family of plants produces more blue-shaded cultivars than any other family.
Scilla, also known as Squill, Siberian Squill, Bluebells and Wild Hyacinth, are members of the lily family which have been cultivated for centuries by Europeans and Americans. Like Hyacinths, they are probably native to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, but found their way to Europe many centuries ago. They were known in America by the 1600’s. They will easily naturalize in shady or semi-shady areas and deer do not usually eat them. They are best when planted in masses.
Each Scilla Siberica ‘Spring Beauty’ bulb produces a bouquet of royal blue, nodding blossoms, 4-6 on a stem and 1-2 stems per bulb.
‘Spring Beauty’ was introduced in 1880. It is one of the few plants that actually performs best in shaded or partially shaded areas. It should be planted in clusters of at least 25 unless it is being forced in a pot. A 6-inch diameter pot can hold 10 bulbs.
Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty‘ is hardy from Zone 3 to Zone 8.