Bulbs for year round colour

Strictly speaking, some so-called bulbs are not bulbs at all, but corms, tubers or rhizomes. A true bulb is an underground swelling of the stem: a mass of leaf-scales within which a new stem and flower later form. A tuber, too, is an underground stem but is solid, not scaly, and able to send out roots from several places. A corm is also solid, but its roots descend from only one place. Rhizomes are creeping, swollen stems, often partly above ground.

Like most plants, after growth has started bulbs prefer a fairly even temperature, and in centrally heated homes this is ensured. Indoor bulbs provide flowers earlier than outdoor ones if the room is not too hot or dry. Because light is vital to all flowers, colours may be less brilliant indoors, so it is important to place the pots in the best light once growth has advanced.

The biggest bulbs are usually the best, because they contain more nutrients. Some bulbs are ‘prepared* or ‘forced’.

This means they have had a specialized heat treatment or a chilling in order to alter their normal time of development, so that it is possible to get bulbs (of certain flowers) to flower in other months of the year. The most common examples of this are Hyacinths, Narcissi and Tulips, and also some Crocuses, Muscari armeniaecum and one or two Scillas.


Bulbs already contain most of the nourishment the plant will need. Many will grow in fibre containing negligible nutriment, in water or even on pebbles but most need more than that. If they are to thrive, they should be put into John Innes Potting Compost No. 2. The following should be put in bulb fibre: Crocus, Chionodoxa, Fritillaria, Galanthus, Hyacinth, Narcissus (including Daffodil), Tulip. All the rest need compost.

Fibre tends to dry quickly so it is better in a plastic or china bowl rather than a porous one; this need not have a drainage hole. Soak the fibre before use. With compost, not only a drainage hole but crocks or charcoal in the bottom are important, for accumulated water can rot bulbs.

Do not mix different bulbs in one bowl; and, if making a group of, for instance, Hyacinths, choose varieties that come into flower at the same time. Put in as many bulbs as possible, but not touching one another. The tips should normally just show above the top of the fibre or compost, which should come to 1/2 inch below the top of the pot to allow space for watering. Smaller bulbs, such as Crocus, should be 1 inch below the surface.


The pots should then stay in a dark but airy place, with the compost or fibre kept damp, for many weeks – until shoots are 2 to 3 inches high. The cooler the room they go into, the better. In a warm, dry atmosphere more frequent watering will be needed. There are no rules about how often to water: just inspect regularly to see whether watering is needed.

Some bulbs are better started off out of doors – a sill or a porch will do – otherwise they may be encouraged to make a lot of long spindly leaves quickly at the expense of the flowers later. This is true of Eranthis, Chionodoxa, Fritillaria, Galanthus, Iris, Muscari, Ornithogalum, miniature Narcissi, Scilla, Vallota.

When indoors, the pots should be turned round occasionally because, like many flowers, those of bulbs tend to strain towards the window. The nearer they are to daylight, the better – so long as strong sunlight does not scorch summer flowering ones. Taller ones may need support, but use sticks as slender and inconspicuous as possible.

Bulbs should not be thrown away after they have flowered. Continue watering (with liquid fertilizer added occasionally) until the leaves are completely dead, then store the bulbs in a paper bag, left open, to replant next year. When they start growing again, add a little liquid fertilizer to the water throughout the growing period. The only exceptions to this are forced Tulips and Lilies-ofthe-Valley, which will not flower a second time in pots but may do so, two years later, if planted in the meanwhile in the garden.

Spring Flowering Bulbs

Bulbs, for many people, are associated only with spring. In fact, they can provide colour all the year round. All the same, the spring favourites – Narcissi (including Daffodils) and Crocuses – will probably remain the most popular first choice. There are many varieties of Narcissi and Daffodils which can be grown in pots and between them provide colour for nearly three months of the year. Florists sell many different types, usually when the plants are just in bud. The two varieties most commonly grown from bulbs planted in the autumn are the Paperwhites and Soleil d’ Or, since they are particularly easy to start under home conditions.

Keep pots of Narcissi (at least 3 bulbs to a pot) cool, dark and slightly damp until the shoots are 4 inches high and the flower buds well in view. If the flower buds stay hidden, remove the side shoots when transferring the pot to a warmer room. .Spray the buds lightly until they have opened. Crocuses provide a bewildering choice of brilliant colours. The two-colour varieties form a particularly decorative group. Vernus Violet Vanguard blooms very early when other flowers are few. Its colouring is particularly charming: a pretty blue with delicate French grey outside. It is just one of the many large-flowered varieties (height about 4 inches) but there are smaller species which are particularly effective planted close together in a large bowl or crocus dish (a special pot with holes in the sides as well as at the top in which to plant bulbs so that when they flower the Crocuses form a colourful ‘mound’). Another dimunitive flower which gives a welcome splash of colour as soon as winter is over is Chionodoxa, Glory-ofthe-Snow. One of its most elegant varieties, C. gigantea, has enormous flowers of a pale violet with an ice-blue centre. Plant the little bulbs in a group. Other attractive ones are C. lucilea rosea, with pink blooms, and the lovely deep gentian-blue C. sarden-sis.

The Schizostylis coccinea or Kaffir Lily, which is not a true lily at all, is a striking bulb for spring flowering. It grows up to 3 feet tall and bears a graceful spike of about a dozen red or pink flowers. Other bulbs to plant for spring bloom- ing include:Muscari{Grape Hyacinths), Puschkinia scilloides (Squills) and Scillas. All of these are small and blue. The starry little Sparaxis and Ornithogalum are also small, and the former is available in many colours, while the latter is usually white. Among taller plants, many of the Allium family flower early in the year (with big globular heads of little flowerets), and there is a choice among Irises, Lilies and Fritillarias. Be sure to select varieties suitable for growing indoors. Richardia (Arum Lily) and Ixia (African Corn Lily) are even more spectacular where there is space to show them off well.

Summer Flowering Bulbs

When summer comes, there is almost an embarrassment of riches, particularly among the Lilium (Lilies), many of which give scent as well as colour to a room. One of the tallest and most handsome of plants grown from bulbs, the Lily gives excellent value for money because its flowers are long-lasting. Lilies need deep pots, and are at their best in a group of three. The auratum variety (Queen of Lilies) is particularly recommended for growing in pots: huge waxy flowers, several to a stem, are deeply scented and often decorated with distinctive golden stripes and crimson spots. They grow with great vigour and need little care. L.speciosum (crimson markings on cream petals) and its varieties in white, red or pink, and L.longiflorum and its varieties, with white funnel-shaped flowers, are also popular and particularly suitable for pot growing.

Another lilylike flower, easy to grow and deserving a pot to itself, is Amaryllis belladonna (Belladonna Lily), which produces several enormous fragrant pink or deep red flowers. The Amaryllis is frequently confused with the Hip-peastrum as they look very similar. There are many species and varieties suitable for pot growing. Flower colours vary considerably; some are bi-coloured at the top of a 1^-2 foot stem. Agapanthus, too, is spectacular, partic-ularly if a group can be grown in one large tub or urn. Sometimes called African Lilies, they have round heads consisting of dozens of small flowers. The best-known variety, A.umbellatus, grows 2-3 feet tall with bright blue or white flowers. Agapanthus needs plenty of water and fertilizer during summer.

For a more discreet charm, a group of Polygonatum (Solomon’s Seal) could grace the corner of a cool room, perhaps among Ferns. P.multiflorum is the best choice for growing in a pot: from each arching stem hangs a row of small greenish-white bells. Other well-known bulbs for summer include a few varieties of Gladioli, tuberous Begonia and Montbretia. If you want to try something less familiar, look for Brodiaea uniflora (profuse, neat flowers on 6 inch stems, which remain in bloom a long time and smell sweetly), Tritonia crocata (taller, with long-lasting, funnel-shaped, orange flowers), Streptanthera cuprea coccinae (exotic orange and black flowers borne on 9-inch stems among a fan of sword-shaped leaves), Achimenes (the small, prettily drooping magenta or pink flowers last a long time and the plants multiply every year – a good choice for hanging baskets), Crinum powellii (the Cape Lily – handsome white, lilylike flowers veined with red), and Valotta specioza (at least 18 inches high with several funnel-shaped flowers in bright scarlet).

Autumn/Winter Flowering Bulbs

As the year wears on and cut flowers become expensive, bulbs which bloom during autumn are particularly useful around the house. There are several varieties of Lily and Crocus which flower in the autumn, as well as Hyacinths and Tulips. Some specially forced to bloom during the coldest weather give a wonderful glow of colour during the winter.

Autumn is also the time when Cyclamens come into their own, along with Colchicums (sometimes called Naked Boys because their crocuslike flowers first appear without any leaves), Liriopes (small spires of deep purple flowers followed by blue-black berries), little Sternbergias (golden starlike flowers that grow in groups), Zephryanthes Candida (white and crocuslike) and the strange Sauromatum guttata (Monarch-ofthe-East), which, without either soil or water, soon produces on a stem nearly 2 feet tall a green and purple-spotted leaflike flower with a rather unpleasant smell.

Winter’s most enchanting flower is perhaps the Galanthus (Snowdrop), its drooping white head delicately touched with green. There are doubles, giants and some with outward-curving petals. The Nerine, by contrast, is a brilliant and spectacular plant: on 18-inch stems large round heads of lilylike pink flowers, sometimes gold-flecked, appear.

In winter, slender multi-coloured Freesias give a touch of gaiety and Convallaria (Lilies-ofthe-Valley) their sweet perfume. Eranthis hyemalis (Winter Aconites), similar to Buttercups, or Lachenalia (Cape Cowslips) can be planted in a clump to give a sunny splash of colour. There is a pendulous variety of the latter, (L. pendula), which would be ideal for a hanging basket. Its flowers are red, edged with green and purple.

Bulbs, in short, can be found for any month of the year and for any purpose: to fill a large alcove with one tall and striking splash of colour, to hang gracefully from a basket or wall-container, or to decorate the corner of a desk with a cluster of miniature blooms near eye-level. Chain-stores offer a good choice of bulbs these days, and there are many specialists whose mailorder catalogues offer a feast of all that is best or rarest. Bulbs are, perhaps, the easiest kind of plant for the indoor gardener to obtain – and to grow.

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