By Peter Ashby of Hartley Botanic
Small is beautiful and nowhere more so than in the realm of those most beloved of plants, the bulbs.
We adore the crocus, snowdrops and miniature narcissi that light up the darkest months of the year, and the nursery trade fuels our passion for these plants by propagating them by the million. But while they may be cheap and cheerful, their evergreen popularity undoubtedly casts a shadow over dozens of other species that are equally worthy of attention.
To make the case for these neglected treasures, let’s go on a lightning tour from South Africa to the eastern Mediterranean to encounter three less familiar flower bulbs which in color and form, could not be more different from one another. What they have in common is a tough and uncomplaining constitution. All three are easily grown using good quality, well drained compost and all thrive in a cool bright greenhouse or unheated conservatory.
Cape Hyacinths (lachenalia bulbifera)
Starting our journey in South Africa – the home of many fabulous plants – we find the genus Lachenalia, or the Cape Hyacinths. These lovely bulbs are often found in specialist collections but only a few have charmed their way into the hearts of gardeners in general – a great shame as one of them in particular has the potential to oust those ubiquitous miniature daffodils from the temperate windowsill.
This is Lachenalia bulbifera, a firecracker of a plant which produces one or two plain or attractively spotted leaves reminiscent of hyacinths and in the typical form, a spike of long-lasting, incandescent red flowers between 10 and 20 centimetres high. Each stem carries twenty or more of these waxy, pendulous blooms which start appearing from as early as late December, and each flower is tipped with splashes of green and set off to perfection with a dash of golden pollen borne on the protruding stamens.
Belying its exotic appearance, Lachenalia bulbifera resents high temperatures and my plants regularly handle brief air frosts on an outside windowsill, though it is best not to expose them to sub zero conditions. Store the plump pale bulbs dry throughout summer and pot them up again in September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Autumn Snowflake (acis autumnalis)
Heading north to the Iberian peninsula, we are on track for a late summer rendezvous with a little gem named Acis autumnalis. Sometimes called the Autumn snowflake, this belongs to a family related to the snowdrops (Galanthus), and blooms unexpectedly when most other flower bulbs are either inactive or barely waking up. In the case of Acis , this welcome transformation involves a sudden and spectacular burst of dainty nodding bells of the most pristine crystalline white, sometimes tinged with a faint pink blush, and poised on a forest of wiry stems.
Depending on the exact form, the Autumn snowflake sometimes flowers before the grassy foliage emerges and if grown in a large enough pot, the bulbs can be left in situ for several years where they will happily multiply.
Our tour ends on the hillsides of western Turkey and Cyprus with the midget of the trio, a stunning little spring flower called Romulea tempskyana . The Romuleas are related to the crocuses but, in flower, they are distinct enough to be unmistakable.
Romulea tempskyana is a true miniature but its extrovert flowers are veritable attention seekers. The silky, reflexed petals glow with the most vivacious and unexpected tint of violet and are perfectly complemented by the sunny yellow of the prominent stamens. A single flower is gorgeous, a group of them in a pot is unforgettable, and as each corm puts out a succession of blooms you can enjoy their display for several weeks.
Don´t be fooled by their size, because these flowers are well able to take care of themselves by closing up tightly at night and during wet weather, nor are they prone to collapsing in a soggy heap when spent, as are the crocuses.
If you have never grown anything other than the time-honoured favourites, this trio with a difference is the perfect introduction to a diversity of more unusual miniatures. And, maybe, you will decide it’s time for the likes of Narcissus “Tete-a-Tete” to move over and make a little room for them.
Peter Ashby specialises in bulbs, corms and aroids for Hartley Botanic, who have been manufacturing luxury custom built greenhouses since 1938.