Bright Bulbs? We'll See

THE REAL DIRT

September 25, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

How bright are flower bulbs? Let's find out.

Last week, I bought some spring-flowering bulbs and planted them at crazy angles. On purpose. I scooped out some dirt and stuck them in the ground, every which way but up. Some of these bulbs are now lying down. Others are pointed toward Asia. None are planted correctly.

Why would I goof up my garden?

I want to know if the bulbs are smarter than me.

Can tulips survive when planted on their sides? Will daffodils turn themselves around when planted upside down? Do bulbs lose their bearings when given wrong directions?

If any of these plants do reach daylight, will they be too pooped to bloom?

Intriguing questions, all. Come spring, I'll have some answers. Pretty flowers, too, if the bulbs are as smart I suspect.

I know daffodils are bright bulbs. Mine can tunnel their way to daylight despite obstructions. Last autumn, while building a flagstone walk, I accidentally placed one slab atop some dormant bulbs. I discovered my error in May, after several daffodils escaped from beneath the edges of the flagstone.

When I lifted the slab, I found these plants had survived by slipping out sideways from under the rock. They hadn't traveled far, but the fact that they even considered taking an alternate route proves the daffodils are smarter than most rush-hour commuters.

Daffodils are my favorite spring flowers, and not just because of their high bulb IQ. I like the bright, fragrant, trumpet-like blooms of yellow, orange and white. I admire their resistance to bulb moochers like mice, rabbits and deer. And I embrace the daffodil's ability to reproduce, time and again, without need of a horticultural midwife. The bulbs seem to divide at will, taking over a flower bed with minimal care.

The daffodil -- a.k.a. narcissus or jonquil -- tolerates wet soils better than other bulbs (several types of wild daffodil have been found blooming underwater). The flowers thrive in pots as well as plots. Also, the bulbs are less expensive than other popular spring-flowering bulbs like tulips and hyacinths, neither of which return annually with the gusto of the robust daffodil.

The only problem with daffodils is disposing of the yellowing foliage once the flowers bloom. Though unsightly, the foliage helps nourish the bulb for the next year's growth. Removing the dying foliage severely weakens the plant. And gardeners shouldn't tie up those old leaves with rubber bands: This restricts sunlight and circulation, and affects flower production.

The best solution is to interplant daffodils with perennials, using the foliage of the latter to camouflage the former. Our peonies do a great job of hiding old bulb foliage.

Tulips aren't nearly as smart as daffodils. They can't be. Tulips bloom once and never come back. Do the bulbs need a road map to spring? By the second year, tulips have disappeared from my garden, save for a few twisted leaves that come up without flowers.

Still, I plant a few tulips each fall, especially the unusual varieties named "Rembrandt" or "Parrot," which have mottled colors and ruffled cups. These beautiful, bizarre markings are caused by a plant virus; the bulbs should be segregated from single-colored bulbs, particularly lilies, which are vulnerable to the disease.

Planting bulbs is hard work, so I also like to keep a few tulips around in case I get hungry. Unlike daffodils, which are poisonous, tulip bulbs are edible, with nearly twice the nutritional value of a baked potato. I've never eaten one, but the Dutch consumed millions of tulip bulbs, boiled and mashed, during the Nazi occupation of their country in World War II.

Choose firm, solid specimens from reputable dealers. Top-quality bulbs have papery skins, or tunics, and are free of bruises. Avoid bulbs with soft necks, brown streaks (a sign of basal rot) or powdery mildew (a blue-gray fungus).

Shop early for the best selection. Plant bulbs immediately, or store in a cool basement or shed. I know gardeners who've dug through ice to plant tulips in December. The bulbs still flowered, if several weeks late.

If you think you've bought bad bulbs, contact the nursery that sold them. Most garden centers will replace tainted bulbs. But don't tell the dealers they're stupid. The bulbs, I mean.

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