Tall, blue and beautiful

Planting: Camassia, or wild hyacinth, adds vertical interest to any garden and blooms conveniently after the tulips but before the lilies.

In The Garden

March 31, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Though I've always loved the fragrance of hyacinths, I've never known quite how to gracefully plug them into the landscape. They're low and clunky -- like wooden shoes -- and don't go with many things. As a result, I've always used them like outdoor air fresheners, sticking a few here and there around the yard for a periodic whiff of something lovely.

Then last year, I discovered camassia (Liliaceae scilloideae), a native bulb also known as Indian hyacinth (or wild hyacinth, camas, Indigo squill, meadow hyacinth and quamash). More elegant than its squatty Dutch cousin, camassia sends up willowy flower spikes (racemes) as high as 3 feet in the air.

"They add vertical interest," says Dotti Schultz, marketing consultant at McClure and Zimmerman in Randolph, Wis., "especially in the late spring garden where you might not have that otherwise. And the colors are nice soft shades of blue and cream that go with anything."

"It's difficult to find blue in the garden," adds Becky Heath, owner of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. "Camassia come in many shades of blue and lavender."

The star-shaped florets look almost painted -- mid-blue dabbed with violet and cerulean, delft shading to indigo, white washed with sky blue -- an impressionist's palette.

Return of the native

Though many consider camassia to be a Pacific Northwest native bulb, they were growing in Maryland when the first settlers arrived. The scilloides variety can be found growing wild in woodlands, grasslands and prairie from Georgia to Texas, and Idaho boasts a long list of place names derived from the camassia, including Camas Prairie, Camas Creek and Camas Slough. The word camassia derives from Shoshone -- camass sometimes rendered quamash, which is also listed today as a distinct variety (Camassia quamash). Native Americans, who were experienced hunter-gatherers, boiled and ate some varieties of camassia bulbs, though some are highly poisonous.

"There are 50 to 60 varieties," notes Andy Lagendyk, horticulturist at Van Bourgondien in Babylon, N.Y., including one called deathcamas. "It can be very dangerous."

Legend had it that Sacajawea gave Lewis and Clark a bag of camassia bulbs -- apparently the non-lethal sort -- to help sustain them on their 1804-1806 expedition.

But it's their beauty that makes camassia such a prize now. Heath says they are great season extenders, blooming anywhere from the first of April to the end of May and sometimes into June here in Maryland, depending upon the variety and weather.

"In a normal winter, they tend to come after the first big spring rush to carry the torch of bloom later into the season," Heath observes. "They bloom after the tulips and before the lilies. And they're tall enough to be seen from a distance." They also make good cut flowers.

Types

Most bulb houses carry six or seven varieties of camassia (none edible), whose flower spikes range in height from 12 inches to 36 inches tall and in color from cream through palest lavender to deep purple and blue. For example, Camassia esculenta (in McClure and Zimmerman listed as C. quamash) is a lovely long spike of pale blue shading to deep blue-violet, while the 'Blue Melody' variety of C. quamash has the added attraction of variegated foliage -- green edged in creamy white. Both grow to about 18 inches tall.

* C. leichtlinii has creamy-white flower spikes that can reach 36 inches.

* C. leichtlinii coerulea is tall with dark-blue and purple flowers.

* C. leichtlinii semiplena is a double-flowering (more ruffly) variety.

"The color is somewhat variable based on positioning, soil type and whether it's in partial sun or shade," says Schultz. "And it will usually be taller in the sun."

Cultivation

While a moist location is ideal for camassia -- they tend to grow naturally on the edge of woodlands -- they dislike having perpetually wet feet.

"They like a sandy, well-drained soil," says Lagendyk. "They don't want to be waterlogged."

Mulch is a great help in retaining moisture, as is semi-shade. Lagendyk suggests planting them among shrubs that cast dappled light on their surroundings.

"The bloom will last a lot longer if they aren't planted in full sun," he says.

But though camassia has its preferences, Heath says that it is also surprisingly adaptable.

"It doesn't seem to mind heavier soils or damp meadows," she says, "and they do well in regular flower borders in loam."

Camassia bulbs should be planted in the fall 4 to 5 inches deep and 12 to 18 inches apart. Since the bulbs do not multiply prolifically, they can then be left undisturbed for years. Although they are beautiful, their blocky Dutch cousins still outshine them in the fragrance department.

Camassia is only very slightly sweet.

"Often plants are drop-dead gorgeous or they have a fragrance," says Heath. "Rarely both."

SOURCES

McClure and Zimmerman

108 W. Winnebago St.

P.O. Box 368

Friesland, WI 53935-0368

www.mzbulb.com

Brent and Becky's Bulbs

7463 Heath Trail

Gloucester, VA 23061

877-661-2852

www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com

Van Bourgondien

P.O. Box 1000

Babylon, NY 11702

800-622-9997

www.dutchbulbs.com

John Scheepers Inc.

23 Tulip Drive

Bantam, CT 06750

860-567-0838

www.johnscheepers.com

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