FLOWERING BULBS Observations and experiments in growing bulbs

(Click here to browse 70 topics on my main site ranging from exotic kaleidoscope designs to the strange world of lucid dreaming.)

I planted a patch of gladiolas in the spring of 2003 and when I dug them up the following fall I was surprised by how much they had changed.

The bulb on the left is the size I planted: one and a half inches across. Upon digging it and its brothers up after ten months, half had grown to four times their original size (second from the left) while the remainder had divided to form two bulbs (third from the left.) Even more interesting, all of them had dozens of 1/4 to 1/2-inch diameter bulblets attached to them. Seeing all these changes triggered a series of questions: Are the bulblets created from the pollination of the flowers? Will larger bulbs produce larger flowers? If I cut the flowers before they can be pollinated, will that prevent the bulblets from forming? Can double bulbs be separated without killing them? Do other bulbs do the same things? What happens if they are left in the ground year after year?

While I could get most of these questions from the library I decided it would be more fun to discover the answers for myself. Besides, it gave me a good excuse to plant more bulbs.

(If you haven't guessed already, I'm a novice at growing bulbs. So much so that some of the "things" I refer to as bulbs like gladiolas and ranunculuses, may not even be bulbs. They sure don't look like tulips, the classic bulb. All I know is from what little is written on the description slips attached to the bags of bulbs and on the backs of the boxes of fertilizer.)

The first step on the road to discovery was to plant a bulb garden. I picked out a three foot wide by 28 foot long stretch of soil on the border of my backyard lawn. It gets morning sun and is shaded in the afternoon. A trip to the local Wal-Mart provided plenty of bulbs with which to experiment.

Here's what went into the bed in the fall of 2003:

200 muscari ( (They really looked like: )

90 King Alfred "type" daffodils ...(They looked like: )
30 King Alfred daffodils.....(They really looked like: )

21 Jan Bos hyacinths ...(They actually looked like: )

60 Red Apeldorn Darwin tulips (They looked like: )

60 Golden Apeldorn tulips.........(They looked like this: )

16 Red Parade Darwin tulips (bloomed the same as the Red Appledorns)

16 Golden Parade Darwin tulips (They looked like: )

16 Pink Impression tulips (What they actually looked like:)

36 Attila Darwin tulips ....(What it actually looks like: )

16 Blue Beauty tulips ...........(What they looked like: )

(As with the King Alfreds, the picture was the same on the Attila and Blue Beauty tulip packages. Only the tinting and size had been altered to make them appear different. I'm interested to see if the flowers from these two are any different. If they are, then the producers used the same photo as a matter of cost efficiency. If not, then they purposely sold the same item under two different labels to sucker people into buying the same bulbs twice - which is also cost efficient, but unethical. As it turned out, the Attila and Blue Beauties were identical in plant and flower size, shape and color.)

Lastly I'm planting 54 white, pink and red gladiolas from last year, which will be sorted by diameter to determine if bulb size effects flower size.

 

Next I put pencil to paper and came up with the following bed plan:

 

PLANTING DAY!

With so many bulbs it's easier and more accurate to dig out the entire bed, set the bulbs all at once and cover them rather than using a bulb planter and doing them one at a time. On the morning of 6 October I began work.

 

First I sprinkled 2 cups of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), five cups of iron sulfate (to counteract the highly alkaline and low iron soil in my yard), eight cups of bone meal and four cups of 9-9-6 bulb food over the bed. After mixing these into the top six inches, I removed that soil and repeated the process.

After leveling and lightly tamping the bottom level it was time for the fun step: pushing bulbs. (What follows is a brief description of the bulbs and how I planted them. I'll use this next year to compare what was planted to what I dig up once the plants have died in fall.)

Muscari are small white bulbs 3/4-inch across. I planted them three inches deep and two inches apart. Many of these had sprouts or bulblets growing out of the bulb's base. I've heard muscari multiply rapidly. It'll be interesting to see what happens the second year of the bed.

Hyacinths are 1 and 3/4-inches across. They were planted six inches deep and five inches apart.

All the tulip bulbs looked the same and were the same size: 1 and 3/4-inches in diameter. These I planted six inches deep and six inches apart.

The gladiolas, saved from last year, varied from 2-inches to 3-inches across. Since volume increases by the third power of the reference dimension, that means the 3-inch bulbs are over 3 times the size of the 2-inch bulbs. I'm looking forward to seeing if the plants are any larger or if they produce larger or more flowers. I ranked 54 by size and planted them in order with the smallest in the left and the largest on the right. They were set six inches deep and seven inches apart.

Both the King Alfred "type" and King Alfred bulbs looked the same, about 1 and 3/4-inches across. The King Alfreds gave me the impression of being heftier and a little larger on average than the King Alfred "type" bulbs. Additionally, a higher percentage of the King Alfreds were doubles, like the one pictured, than the "type" bulbs. I planted them all six inches deep and six inches apart.

 

After placing the last bulb, I covered them with the excavated soil, raked it, lightly tamped it down, raked and leveled it again, replaced the pre-existing drip system and gave the bed a light soaking.

The last task was to use the bulb package covers to make markers.

It took a total of 5 hours of steady work to do all of this. It was a lot of effort, but since most of the bulbs will remain in place for two or three years I'm hoping it'll be time well invested.

This small 100 square foot bed cost $122 for the 600 bulbs I put in. (The Gladiolas were free from last year. If their cost were added in the total increases by $10.) Fertilizer was $32, giving a grand total of $164. Will it be worth it? March will tell.

 

One week after finishing the bed, I was digging through a dark corner of the garage and stumbled across a forgotten bag of ranunculuses I'd dug in early summer after the tops had died back. Since the main bed was full, I opened a second bed against a south facing wall. In it I planted the ranunculuses in a 24-foot trench and new store-bought ranunculuses, for comparison, in a parallel trench. All total I put down 160 tubers.

ranunculuses

Ranunculus tubers look a little like dried spiders. I planted them with the legs down, three inches deep and three inches apart.

The small tuber on the left is an average new ranunculus from the store. The much larger one on the right is one that I had dug. Like the gladiolas, most of the ranunculuses from last year divided, forming tangled clumps of roots that could be teased apart into separate tubers. While most were just a little bigger than new store-bought tubers, many grew to many times their original size, as the picture above shows.

While I was in the grip of planting frenzy, I also set out the rest of last year's gladiolas (two dozen ranging in size from 2 inches down to one inch across), half a dozen left-over tulips of mixed colors, six new pink tulips named Esther that I spotted in Wal-Mart,

Esther tulips (They really looked like: )

and a dozen Carlton and Trumpet Golden Harvest daffodils dug up from last year's garden.

Now all I have to do is wait for February 2004 for the first shoots to appear. (Wrong about that. The first shoots started appearing in early January.)

 

I hope you noticed that I referred to the ranunculuses as tubers and not bulbs. Ignorance may be bliss, but it has no place on a web page that's supposed to be informative. A quick Internet search provided the following definitions:

A bulb is a complete or nearly complete miniature plant encased in fleshy modified leaves called scales which contain reserves of food. Bulbs are such complete units that if all you want is a flower and aren't interested in continuing the plant, all you have to do is give it water and the bulb's internal energy stores are sufficient to grow leaves and produce a flower. Typical bulbs are tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.

A corm is the base of a stem that becomes swollen and solid with nutrients. It has no fleshy scales. (Gladiolas and crocuses.)

A tuber, which is an underground stem that stores food, differs from the true bulb or corm in that it has no covering of dry leaves and no basal plant from which the roots grow. Usually short, fat, and rounded, it has a knobby surface with growth buds, or eyes, from which the shoots of the new plant emerge. A potato is a tuber, as are caladiums, oxalis and anemones.

A tuberous root is the only one from this group that is a real root; its food supply is kept in root tissue, not in stem or leaf tissue as in other bulbs. (This sounds like a ranunculus to me, but the label on the bag said that they were tubers. Dahlias and begonias develop from tuberous roots. Daylilies may also be classed as tuberous root plants, though some sources refer to them as belonging to the fleshy root family. I've read the definitions for both tuberous root and fleshy root and I have to admit that they sound the same to me.)

A rhizome is a thickened stem that grows horizontally, weaving its way along or below the surface of the soil and at intervals sending stems above ground. (Crabgrass, Lily-of-the-valley and bamboo)

 

Here are some results from a planting of Mignon Border dahlias set out in spring of 2003. They bloomed for one month. These have tuberous roots that are the size of fingers. Six of the eight ordered grew. I discovered that when deadheading, I needed to cut the stem as far down as possible or the plant ended up looking like a porcupine. I also learned that these are tough little plants. I had to move them in the middle of summer and in spite of that shock they were flowering again by September. These dahlias easily get blown over in the wind so in the future I'll provide support in the form of shortened tomato cages. The plants should grow up around them and hide them.

I have red, magenta, white and yellow Mignon Border Dahlias. They also come in an orange, but my mix didn't include any or they were the plants that didn't grow. The flowers are two and a half inches across and each one lasts five days in the heat of summer and ten during the cooler days of spring and fall. The plants average 18 inches in diameter.

NEW!!! I got a Fall surprise!

Following directions, I waited until the night time temperature fell below 50 degrees before planting. Unfortunately, these instructions failed to take into consideration the strange weather I get in my high desert location. Sure, the night time temperatures were below 50 but the daytime highs were still in the high 80s and low 90s. What happened was that the daytime highs triggered the sprouting drive in the shallowly planted muscari and ranunculuses. None of the other bulbs, which were planted much deeper, have shown signs of sprouting so I hope they'd wait until Spring to come up. In the meantime, it'll be interesting to see if the muscari and ranunculuses grow and flower now that the weather has turned cold. (Cold here means 34 degrees at night and 65 during the day. The sky is almost aways clear and sunny so who knows, maybe I'll have flowers for Christmas.)

 

Late Spring Report, 2004

(I've inserted the late Spring developments into the early Spring writeup.)

Muscari

Here's a close up of the muscari sphagetti patch on 1 March.

This picture is 18 inches top to bottom and the individual muscari leaves are over 12 inches long. In contrast, below is what second muscari bed looks like. It was planted just two weeks later than the one above. The photos are at the same scale. The difference is that the one below was planted after a Fall heat wave swept through the area and didn't get the idea that summer was just around the corner. It's amazing the difference a couple of weeks can make.

By 5 March the larger muscari in the main bed had fully developed buds that were about to open.

The small bed planted after the Fall heat wave is showing just the tips of buds.

By 8 March the muscari in the main bed were beginning to open and show color.


Just starting to open on the 8th

Three days later

On March 13th, five days old. The cluster of flowers is 1 and 1/2 inches
tall. Since the bottom flowers are starting to wilt, I'd estimate that
each flower cluster will only look good for two weeks.

By the 13th the muscari in the second small bed, the one planted after the Fall heat wave, started opening. In spite of the bulbs being planted weeks later and the plants being much smaller, the flowers are only a few days behind the main bed muscari.

Here's what a section of the muscari bed looked like on 15 March:

The muscari are the only bulbs that attracted any bees, and it did so with a vengence. They buzz around the blooms all day long. If you like bees (I do) this is another incentive to plant them.

A surprise! I was looking around the muscari bed and noticed that each plant is putting out a second stalk of flowers. The new bud can be seen in the lower right hand corner of the following photo:

This means that the time the muscari will be showing flowers is double what I'd originally estimated. These little guys might be worth keeping after all!

The muscari finished their season on 25 March. That means they flowered for about two weeks. The faded flower stems gave the bed a grayish look that suggests the spent flowers should be deadheaded to keep the bed as attractive as possible until next year.

 

Daffodils

By 1 February, the second bed I planted against a south-facing wall, the bed with the ranunculuses, had buds on several daffodils. I can't say whether they are ahead of the daffodils in the main bed bacause of the extra warmth the second bed receives or because Carlton and Trumpet Golden Harvest daffodils flower earlier than King Alfreds.
(Actually, I can. Because the gladiolas in the south bed, which are the same as the ones in the main bed, are two months head of the glads in the main bed, I'm going to assume that it's the extra light and warmth that pushed the daffs in the south bed to bloom earlier.) In any event, the first daffodil opened on 7 February. I cut half a dozen of what I believe to be Carlton daffodils and brought them inside. In spite of giving them a fresh cut, underwater of course, and fresh water every other day, they only lasted five days. Flowers that opened on the same day and were left out in the garden still look fresh. This suggests that daffodils are short term cut flowers.

On 18 February the first King Alfred "Type" flower opened and I have to say I'm disappointed. The flower was small, only 2 and 1/2 inches across. By 22 February there were a dozen flowers and they were all small and tended to droop with the face of the flower pointing toward the ground.

(Jumping forward to 25 February, the first true King Alfred opened (lower of the two photos above.) It was much larger with a longer and larger cup than the "types." . Also, the yellow color of the cup was a purer yellow and the flower points upward more. All in all I'd say the true King Alfred is a much better flower. I think next year I'll plant a few (they cost $1.35 each) Dutch Master daffodils, which are supposed to be very large. One thing nice about the "type" and "true" King Alfreds is that Wal-Mart wasn't playing a game with names; they really are different flowers. By March I'd noticed that a couple of the flowers in the "type" bed were identical in size and shape to those in the true King Alfred bed. I assume that there was some mixing of the two kinds in the packing plant.

The very first Carlton daffodil flower that opened on 7 February finally faded on 10 March. Considering that it was right next to a south-facing wall painted bright white, which would double the amount of heat and light the flower received, I'm surprized it lasted so long. Hopefully the flowers on the daffodils growing in the main bed, which gets only morning sun, will last even longer.

The daffodils hit their peak on 10 March, the very earliest "types" were just starting to wilt while the last of the true King Alfreds had opened. Here's what the bed looked like:

The true King Alfreds are on the left 1/3 of this picture. They look denser than the "types" in the right 2/3s because in addition to the flowers being larger, the stem length is more uniform so they're concentrated. The tallest stems in this picture are 2 feet high. If all the bulbs in the picture double or triple by next Spring, the daffodil bed should be great.

This picture gave me an idea for next year's bulb bed. If I planted the daffodils in three rows with the rear row being tall Dutch Masters, the middle row average-height King Alfreds, and the front row a short variety like Tete-a-Tete and they all bloomed at the same time they should create a solid wall of yellow.

The King Alfred "type" daffodils were pretty much gone by 15 March, but they may have faded prematurely because the first two weeks of March were extremely bright and averaged 82 degrees. This sort of weather is tough on plants that prefer cool temperatures.

By March 20 all the flowers had faded. That means the main bed provided one month of flowering, but the flowers were at their peak for only two weeks of that. Still, there's something about bright yellow daffodils that shouts, "Spring is here," loud enough to make them worth the work. If my area hadn't been hit with a heat wave in March (80-84 degrees and intensely bright sun for three weeks without a break) the flowers might have lasted another week. Perhaps next year the weather will be milder.

 

Rununculuses

As of 25 February, there were half a dozen buds on the ranuculuses. It's easy to tell what the flower color will be because the buds show the petal color long before they open. One of the big surprises is the wide range of plant types exhibited by the ranunculuses. Some have finely-cut lacy foliage, others have fat, round leaves. Some plants are tight mounds of green, others are tall and open. It's easy to tell what color the flowers will be from the buds. After comparing plant shapes and flower colors, I was able to conclude the plant shape and flower color are not related.

By 5 March there were dozens of ranunculus buds and a couple of flowers, like the following yellow:

This flower is only three inches across but it may get larger as it grows. I didn't fertilize with a bloom-boosting fertilizer so this year's flowers may start off on the small side. So far I've spotted red, two shades of yellow, pink, orange, white, purple and magenta flowers. Here are some examples:

In the bright sun of the south-facing bed the length of time the flowers look good depends on color. Dark colors like red only last a week. Yellows last twice that and whites look good for three weeks. I suspect the reason is that the dark colors collect so much heat from the sun they literally cook. Ranunculuses grown in partial shade could produce flowers that last over a month. To test this I plan to move some of them to the main bed next year so they'll only get cool morning sun.

The ranunculuses planted after the Fall heat wave are still only small sprouts. Unlike the muscari, they haven't caught up to the ones planted earlier. This might offer a way to significantly lengthen the flowering time of a ranucunlus border: plant a rear row early while the weather is still warm and a front row after it cools off. The rear row will flower for a couple of months and then the front row would take over.

I conducted a quick Internet search for information on ranunculus culture and it turns out they grow best in cool weather with short days. That being the case then growing them over winter, as I accidentally did, makes good sense. What I may try is letting the plants grow until August, dig them and chill them for a month in the refrigerator, then replant them against the south wall on 1 September. Perhaps they will bloom by Christmas.

The ranunculus bed hit it's peak on 19 March.

In person the mass of blooms is much more exuberant and full.

The tubers for this bed came from packages of assorted ranunculus tubers sold at Wal-Mart. I noticed that the plant heights varied widely from 12 inches to 24 inches. This gave the bed an uneven appearance. I hope to purchase higher grade tubers for next year's planting and see if they are more uniform.

Overhead watering is rough on ranunculus flowers. The delicate petals and stems get a beaten down look after a prolonged sprinkling.

One test I want to preform next year is to see if deadheading, removing spent flowers, prolongs flowering. It does in many plants but because ranunculuses are bulbs (tubers) they may not respond the same.

 
Hyacinths

The hyacinths started opening on 26 February, mostly from the top down. The shockingly bright magenta of the Jan Bos variety I planted is an eye catcher, but not the pure red shown on the package cover. By 2 March the flowers were already passed their peak, many with the tops dying back. By 5 March the top half of all the flowers were wilted and by 8 March the hyacinth bed was done for the year. All things considered, I was disappointed.

The flowers weren't as well formed as the potted plants available in stores and were short lived, only looking good for one week. The biggest disappointment was that the fragrance, while good up close, was never strong enough to scent the garden.

The plants are also much smaller than those available in nurseries, as the split-screen picture below shows.

Both sides were taken at the same distance to preserve the same scale. The hyacinths on the left were purchased in Wal-mart (3 plants in an 8-inch pot for $4.92 in March, 2004) and planted in the south-facing bed. The hyacinth on the left was one grown in the ground from bulbs purchased from Wal-Mart last Fall. As you can see th ones grown in the ground are small and the flower stems in particular much shorter. While planting the new hyacinths, I felt around for the bulbs and discovered that they were significantly larger the the bulbs I bought last Fall. Assuming that this is the reason the potted hyacinths are so much larger, it'll be interesting to see if the bulbs I planted in Fall get larger by the time I dig them up and if they do, if they make larger plants the following Spring.

The hyacinths gave me a surprise on March 12th: some of them started flowering again.

The dead flower stalk on the right is the one that originally flowered. The new one on the left is a second bud that appeared a week later. Four of the 20 bulbs that flowered repeated in this manner. The reason this surprised me is that all the bulbs looked the same so I expected one flower stem from each. Why some gave two stems is a mystery. I plan to leave the bulbs in the ground until next year and see if a higher percentage of them provide double blooms because the bulbs are more mature and larger. If so, trimming off the first stem after it fades to let the second one show would double the flowering period for hyacinths.

Tulips

Another surprise showed up in the main bulb bed. All of the Pink Impression tulips sprouted well ahead of the other tulips. The Pink Impressions are Darwin tulips like all the others, so it's strange they should be so much ahead of them.

The picture above was taken on 5 March and clearly shows how far ahead the Pink Impressions (plants in the center) are ahead of the Red Parade tulips on the left and the Blue Beauty tulips on the right.

One oddity about the tulips is that I don't recall any of the bulbs I planted last fall as being doubles. Yet 20 percent of the tulip sprouts have two or more shoots, as the following picture shows:

This suggests that tulips can be doubles without showing it, unlike daffodils where the double bulb is obvious.

The picture below is of two unknown mixture of tulips planted in the south-facing bed.

They opened on 4 March. The stems are so short that the flowers are jammed against the surrounding leaves. A few days later two smaller purple tulips opened.

By March 12th the pink tulips had faded to the point where the pedals were falling off the flowers. That means the flowers only showed for 8 days. Unless the other varieties last longer I double that I'll keep them. Nursing plants for a whole year for only eight days of color it's worth it.

Here's a close up of one of the purple tulips:

The mixed patch gave me a third surprise on 15 March when the flower below opened:

This orange absolutely glowed in the morning sun.

 
The Pink Impression tulips opened on 14 March. At 9 am they were tight buds, by ten they were completely open, there was no period during which the flowers formed the classic egg shape always shown on tulip packaging.

I couldn't understand why any of my tulips didn't look like the egg shaped flowers in books. Then on the morning of 15 March I looked out and noticed the same Pink Impression tulip above looking like this:

It appears tulips close into the classic egg shape at night and perhaps on very cloudy days. As soon as the sun hits them they open out almost flat. Considering that most tulip flowers will be seen during the day in the open position I think it's a little misleading to advertise them as they look when closed. I can understand why tulip producers do this, a closed tulip is often more attractive than an open one, besides a more pleasing shape the outside colors are softer than the darker, harsher shades on the inside of the flowers.

Here's what the whole Pink Impression bed looked like on Mach 15:

One hour after this photo was taken, The sun slipped behind the wall these tulips are planted near casting them into shade. Almost immediately they began closing eve though the air temperature continued to rise. This suggests that they open and close in response to sunlight rather than temperature.

On 16 March the Golden Appledorn, Attila and Blue Beauty tulips started opening. They all have the same plant form: only 8 inches tall and compact. The flower stems are so short the bottom of the flower touches the plant's leaves. The golden appledorn, blue beauty and Attila beds hit thier peaks on 2 March.

.....Golden Appledorn tulips.....................Attila tulips.............

On March 18 the first Red Appledorn opened.

It was much more orange than this picture shows and definitely not the pure red suggested by the cover. This bed hit it's peak on 25 march.

The Red Parade tulips are identical in plant size and flower color to the Red Appledorns.

The Golden Parade Tulips where slightly taller, about 16 inches vs 12 inches, and bloomed a week later than the Golden Appledorns.

The Esther tulips started opening on 22 March.

They are very attractive up close, but the pink is so faint that in bright sun or standing more than ten feet away the color seems to fade. I will say this for them, they look more like the picture on the package than any other tulip so far. Considering that they were planted against the south wall where everything else bloomed early relative to the main bed and they are just starting to flower, it's safe to assume that the Esther yulips are a very late blooming variety.

I cut one tulip and by giving it a fresh cut and water every other day it lasted a week. That's a little better than the daffodil did.

 

Gladiolas

Here's another look at the gladiola bulbs (sorry, corms) in the first picture on this page:

See the small bulblets on the far right? Those grew in clusters at the base of the previous year's gladiola bulbs. I thought I'd been careful about getting all of them out of the old bed but as the picture below shows, I didn't.

This is a sprout from one of the bulblets I missed. It's only a quarter of an inch across and two inches high. There are two dozen of these sprouts scattered throughout the bed. I'll let a few of them mature far enough to see it they flower, then pull them out. The question that's got me wondering is: If a gladiola bulb is left in the ground over the winter and it forms a dozen bulblets, won't their sprouting the next Spring crowd the original bulb so much it might not be able to flower?

The gladiolas in the south-facing bed are 1-2 feet tall while those in the main bed, that only gets morning sun, are just starting to sprout as of 5 March.

The following picture is of the first three galdiolas in the main bed:

As you can see, there are two sprouts at each planting site. These were the largest of the gladiolas I planted last Fall and were all single corms. That implied that a gladiola corm can be a double even if it looks like a single. Eighty percent of the corms over two inches in diameter produced two sprouts. Only ten percent of the corms under two inches had two.

In the interests of science, I dug up one of the few double sprouted galds from the small corm area.

Even though the corm is a single, as opposed to being doubled, it produced two sprouts. I speculate that if this plant had been left in the ground all year it would have produced a double corm when dug up in Fall. If this is correct, it suggests a method for predicting which corms will double as opposed to growing a single larger corm.

The first gladiola flower in the main bed opened on 10 May. Only a few of the other 40-odd gladiolas in that bed are currently showing buds so I'm assuming that the flowering season for them will be spread out over several weeks.

The flower size and stalk length appears to be the same regardless of the original bulb size. What was different was plant size. Two-inch corms produced plants that grew to 30 inches tall whereas the 3-inch corms produced plants that were 48 inches tall. The larger corms also produced more secondary plants.

The gladiolas started flowering in the main bed on 1 May and hit their peak on 26 May. However, this "peak" hardly deserves the title. The most flowers that were in bloom at the same time were 8 out of 50 plants. This scattering of bloom times might extend the season, but it never produced a rush of color that makes you want to say, "Wow." It was a very disappointing display.

 

Second Spring Update:

The small planting of ranunculuses after last Fall's heat wave began flowering on 2 April. The plants are much smaller than the ones planted three weeks earlier in the south bed.

On April 3, the Mignon Patio Dahlias planted a year ago started to sprout.

The first gladiola in the south bed opened on 6 April. This was from a corm that measured 1 and 1/4 inches in diameter and produced 12 flowers.

On April 5, the last of the Golden Appledorn tulips dropped its petals. The Red Appledorn, golden Parade and all the other tulips dropped theirs on April 8.

In late April, my wife and I drove down to the world famous ranunculus fields 35 miles north of San Diego in the small town of Carlsbad, California. These beds total 50 acres planted solid with the finest ranunculuses available.

While there I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they sell ranunculus tubers year round.

The best thing about purchasing the tuber directly from the source is that I was able to pick through dozens of bags to select the very largest tubers.

Left: average Wal-Mart ranunculus tuber. Middle: large home-grown tuber.
Right: jumbo tuber purchased from the flower field garden center.

 
According to what I've read, ranunculus tubers are graded into four sizes, the largest of which is jumbo. Flower size is similar for all the grades but the larger tubers are supposed to produce more flowers. This quality doesn't come cheap. The tubers I purchased cost four dollars for a bag of five.

I got 16 of the best bags and will store them until September before planting them. They'll go into the south bed with the hope that sunlight reflecting off the white south wall of my house will add to the direct sunlight enough so that they will flower around Christmas.

 

Bulb Reproduction

Bulbs are reproductive juggernauts, employing many different techniques to increase their numbers. Here's what I learned while observing the growth of my bulbs:

In addition to producing seed, bulbs increase their numbers by producing bulblets (1/4-1/2 inch bulbs attached to the base of the main bulb), producing secondary bulbs (large, fully formed bulbs attached to the main bulb), main bulb splitting (two or more bulbs enclosed in a single outer sheath) or internal divisions in the main bulb (two or more plants incorporated inside the main bulb even though it appears to be a single bulb.)

Tulips seem to prefer the development of a main bulb with as many as ten secondary bulbs around it.

A cluster of secondary tulip bulbs surrounding the main bulb on the right.

Muscari produce mostly bulblets and no secondary bulbs.

A single muscari bulb can produce up to 30 bulblets. Left to grow
and flower the next year these would produce a massive flower set.

Hyacinths are a little different. They produce ten to twenty bulblets at the ends of roots instead of being attached to the main bulb. Their small size compared to other bulblets suggests that they might take two seasons to grow large enough to produce full sized flowers.

Hyacinth bulblets can cause problems if you're trying to dig them out of a bed because the bulblets break off easily and will sprout the following season.

Daffodils produce two to four large secondary bulbs and the main bulb often splits.

Gladiolas are the reproductive kings of the bulb world. They do it all: each single bulb produces up to two dozen fat bulblets, one to three secondary bulbs, the main bulb commonly splits, and the main bulb also doubles internally.

 

 

Mystery Bulb

Does anyone know what this bulb is? Is so, please email me to let me know. Thank you. The plant is 14 inches tall and flowers for three months with pure orange blooms that are 1 inch across.

MYSTERY SOLVED!!!

In November of 2004 I received an email from Mr. Aaron Schnebly who informed me that the mystery bulb is the rather rare Star of Bethlehem (ornithogalum dunium) from South Africa. Thanks, Aaron!

 
Bulb Bed Evolution

The following is a sequence of pictures showing how the bulb bed changed over time:

1 January: Only a few shoots are showing.

1 March:.... (The daffodils look brighter in person.)

Something I hadn't expected was that on calm days the area around the daffodils becomes scented with their fragrance. I'd never thought of them as having much fragrance. It's similar to hyacinths.

15 March: .

The hyacinth flowers on the right have died back but the blue muscari in the center front looks great. (The muscari are faint in this photo but in person they make a strong impression.) The pink on the left is the Pink Impression tulips. Half of the King Alfred "type" daffodils have faded. The true King Alfreds still look good.

23 March:

The Daffodils have wilted but the red and yellow Appledorn and Parade tulips a flowering with a vengeance. The Pink Impression tulips wilted on 22 March. The muscari are almosr gone for the year. This picture is a weak rendering of the brilliance these flowers show in full sun.

8 April:

The last of the tulips have dropped their petals and until the gladiolas start in May the bed is devoid of color.

 

The south bed

I've mentioned this bed often yet never posted a picture of it, so here it is:

It's 30 feet long and 3 wide.

Finally, here are pictures of what the sprouts, buds and flowers of the various bulbs look like: (Note: these pictures are not to scale. The muscari sprouts are much smaller than the daffodil sprouts.)

daffodil sprout, bud, and flower (3 3/4 inches across)

muscari sprout, bud, and flower (1 1/2 inches tall)

ranunculus sprout, bud, and flower

tulip sprout, bud, and flower - or

hyacinth sprout bud, and flower (4" tall)

gladiola sprout bud, and flower (18 inches tall.)

 

Winter Ranunculus Experiment:

On September 4, 2004, I planted 80 choice ranunculus tubers in the south-facing bed in the hopes of seeing if the warmth from the house and the extra light reflected off the wall induces the tubers to bloom by Christmas. I also planted 40 inexpensive ranunculus tubers from Wal-Mart.

The photo above shows the difference between a premium jumbo tuber on the left (80 cents each) and a cheap Wal-Mart tuber on the right (15 cents each.) The jumbo isn't a bundle of several smaller tubers but a single large unit. Besides being larger, the jumbo tubers have a meatier look whereas many of the Wal-Mart tubers looked dry and shriveled as if they'd been baked in an oven.

One thing I learned while purchasing bags of jumbo tubers in the Armstrong Garden Center next to the ranunculus fields in San Diego is that you can't always trust the labeling. I found some packages labeled jumbo that had tubers smaller than the normal size tubers. It's a good idea to look through all the available packages and pick out the ones with the largest tubers.

It'll be interesting to see if the larger tuber have a higher germination rate and if they really do produce more flowers. Please check back around Christmas for the final report.

Christmas update: Regrettably, there will be no flowers for Christmas. I got the tubers in the ground in late September and they sprouted by the middle of November. However, since then the growth has been almost nil even though they receive a lot of light from their direct southern exposure and additional reflected light from being planted with a white wall close behind them.

Another disappointment was that the big fat tubers from the garden store didn't sprout any sooner, generate bigger plants, or have a higher germination success than the cheap bulk tubers I got from Wal-Mart for 1/10th the cost.

UPDATE!!! The first ranunculuses planted against the south wall bloomed on 25 February, 2005. This was only 8 days earlier than last year. I suspect they might have opened as much as two weeks earlier than they did but the winter was cooler and darker than last year.

The bed reached it's peak on 20 March and was well into decline by 2 April. Even though most of the bed had been planted with prime tubers, plant size varied as much or more as the cheap tubers purchased from Wal-Mart. On average I'd estimate that the jumbo sized tubers produced plants that were only 20 percent larger than the Wal-Mart's yet cost almost five times as much.

 

Next Year

I'm sorry to say that after much consideration I've decided to take the bulb bed out. While they lasted, the flowers were great but the bloom time is far too short. I can put the bed into pansies or any of a number of annuals or perennials and have color in the same bed virtually year round.

I've enjoyed the bed and hope visitors enjoy this page about it.

 

 
Click here to go to my main page and browse 30 other subjects