As a matter of fact you don't even need a garden to know the delights of bulb growing. Hyacinths, narcissuses, tulips, and many other popular kinds can be brought into glorious bloom in the home with little effort, in a few short weeks, and without even using soil if you prefer to use fibre, pebbles, or water instead. Lily-of-the-valleys can be had in bloom in three weeks from the time they are planted, colchicums even more quickly. What other group of plants offers so much . .. for so little?
Undoubtedly the ease with which most bulbs can be grown appeals. That is one reason why millions of tulips, narcissuses, hyacinths, crocuses, snowdrops, squills, grape-hyacinths, etc., are planted each fall, why gladioluses, dahlias, cannas, tuberous begonias, gloxinias, and other summer-bloomers are popular for spring planting. Give these favourites but half a chance and they will reward you handsomely and unfailingly.
Excitement and adventure lie ahead if you really pursue the idea of acquiring a collection of the rarest bulbs. You may find yourself in correspondence with nurseries and individuals in Europe, South America, India, Kashmir, South Africa, and other distant lands, as well as with dealers, amateur gardeners, botanists, and others in our own country, for it is a fact that many fine native American bulbs are not commonly available. But such explorations are not for you until you have acquired a little of the know-how of handling the more easily obtainable kinds.
So begin bulb growing by planting generous quantities of those that are commonly available . . . kinds that are listed in most seedsmen's catalogues . . . types suitable for beginners. You can scarcely fail if you pay attention to their few simple needs. A modest monetary investment will provide amazing dividends in beauty and pleasure.
There you have one of the secrets of the popularity of bulbs . . . they give so much for so little. But bulbs offer many other attractions for the average amateur as well as for the horticulturally elite. Consider these.
Bulbs have a long and favourable record as garden plants. The history of bulb gardening spans the history of gardening itself; I can attempt no more here than a brief outline.
During the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire interest in gardening in Europe fell to a low ebb. The spark was kept alive in the monasteries, and it was a monk of the Abbey of St. Gall near Lake Constance who authored the earliest known medieval book on gardening, a poem called "The Little Garden." Walafrid Strabo wrote this book in the ninth century and in it recorded his love for lilies as well as roses in these words:
Better and sweeter are they than all the other plants and rightly called the flower of flowers. Yes, roses and lilies, the one for virginity with no sordid toil, no warmth of love, but the glow of their own sweet scent, which spreads further than the rival roses, but once bruised or crushed turns all to rankness. Therefore roses and lilies for our church, one for the Martyr's blood, the other for the symbol in His hand. Pluck them, 0 maiden, roses for war and lilies for peace, and think of that Flower of the stem of Jesse. Lilies His words were and the hallowed acts of His pleasant life, but His death re-dyed the roses.
The designations "lily" and "white lily" as used in those times referred to Lilium candidum, the Madonna lily. In 812 A.D. a list was published of the herbs grown in the imperial gardens of the Emperor Charlemagne; it includes the candidum lily. The earliest known original work on gardening in English, of which a manuscript copy written in 1441 still exists, lists ninety-seven plants actually growing in an English garden; among these are daffodils, candidum lilies, Hepatica triloba, and Crocus sativus.
The Crusades, and the Renaissance that followed, revived interest in plants and gardens. People were travelling, seeing strange lands, becoming acquainted with foreign customs and unusual plants. Interest first centred in the Mediterranean region and in lands to the east of it, but before long the New World was discovered and floral treasures as well as other wealth were introduced from the Americas to Spain and Portugal and to other European countries.
All over Europe increasing attention was given to gardens. The Italians, French, Spanish, Germans, Austrians, Dutch, and English played parts in the movement and many exotic plants were introduced to their home countries. Because bulbs withstood long delays incident to the transportation of the day better than most plants, they were undoubtedly prominent among the successful introductions. Records indicate that during the last half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth the following bulbs were brought for the first time into England: Martagon lilies, crown imperials, Persian fritillaries, Persian ranunculuses, double-flowered hepaticas, yellow crocuses, and tulips.
The tulip, now one of the most popular of garden bulbs, was not known in Europe before 1554, when the Ambassador of the Emperor Ferdinand to the Sultan of Turkey told in a letter of seeing flowers "which the Turks call tulipam" between Adrianople and Constantinople. The first record of tulips blooming in Europe is 1559. But long before this they were popular in Eastern gardens. The Turks grew many kinds and that fierce warrior and great gardener Mohammed Babar (Emperor Zehireddin Mohammed) gave attention to them and recorded, when marching through the mountains of Afghanistan:
The ground is richly diversified by various kinds of tulips. I once directed them to be counted, and they brought in thirty-two or thirty-three different sorts of tulips. There is one species which has a scent in some degree like a rose, and which I termed laleh-gul-bui ( the rose-scented tulip ). This species is found only on the Sheikh's Plain, in a small spot of ground, and nowhere else.
Increase in the number of different kinds of bulbs grown in gardens continued steadily. Tradescant, listing the plants he grew in his garden at Lambeth in London in 1656, mentions (among others) more than ten kinds of crocuses, five kinds of cyclamen, six kinds of fritillaries, four kinds of gladioluses, twenty-five kinds of hyacinths ( he includes grape-hyacinths ), several kinds of colchicums, bulbous irises from Persia and Africa, cannas ( which he calls "redflowered Indian Cane and yellow Indian Cane"), many tulips and many narcissuses, leucojums, anemones, alliums ( including a "Virginia Garlick from America"), Ornithogalum arabicurn and Ornithogalum neapolitanum, crown imperials, ranunculuses, anemones, and, of course, lilies.
The establishment of the Dutch in South Africa in 1652 resulted in the first "Cape plants" being sent to Europe, a foretaste of the vast wealth of magnificent plants, particularly bulbs, that South Africa was to give to the world. Among the first sent home were two kinds of oxalis. Not too long afterward followed nerines, freesias, gladioluses, and clivias.
But colonists not only collected bulbs of the new lands and sent them home; they brought with them familiar kinds from the old countries and planted them in their new homes.
From 1640 on the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam ( New York) each had "a patch of cabbages, a bit of tulips," and Adrian Van der Donck who came to New Amsterdam in 1642 later reported upon "the flowers in general which the Netherlands have introduced." He included "different varieties of fine tulips, crown imperials, white lilies, the lily frutularia [sic] and anemones."
From the beginning of the seventeenth century geographical exploration and exploitation proceeded rapidly. Wealth accumulated in many of the old countries and some of the new. Interest in plants and gardens continued to expand. New plants of all types, including bulbs, were collected more or less systematically and became available to gardeners. The stream of new introductions that began at that time has flowed continuously, although at various rates at different times, to the present day.
John Bartram, first great American botanist, sent to Europe bulbs of native erythroniums as well as those of Lilium philadelphicum and Lilium superbum. The latter bloomed in England for the first time in 1738, the former a year later. Contemporaries of Bartram were also actively collecting plants.
In 1772 the first of a long line of professional plant hunters, Francis Masson, was sent from Kew Gardens in England to South Africa, charged with the particular purpose of collecting and sending home live plants and seeds. To Masson and his successors through the next eighteen decades we are indebted for many fine bulbous plants we now grow. Among Masson's own introductions was the unbelievable green Ixia viridiflora and red-flowered Boophone distachya. The first tiger lilies ( Lilium tigrinum) were sent by William Kerr from China in 1804. Although new to Western gardens this lily had been cultivated in the Orient for more than a thousand years. It is a species that alert American hybridists have successfully used to produce some of the fine hybrid lilies that are such a noteworthy development of the mid-twentieth century.
The exploration of western North America brought to notice a grand lot of new bulbs including Camassia esculenta which David Douglas was the first white man to see when he was collecting in the early years of the nineteenth century.
Dr. F. P. von Siebold, a Dutch surgeon, made horticultural history when he returned to Europe in 1829 with bulbs of Lilium speciosum and Lilium maculatum from Japan, a country then practically closed to Westerners. The magnificent Lilium auratum was obtained from Japan by Veitch in the early 1860s, and Augustine Henry sent home from China Lilium Henryi soon afterward. Last of the really great lilies to arrive was the regal lily obtained by "Chinese" Wilson in the Min valley of China when he was collecting for the Arnold Arboretum of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and sent home by him in quantity in 1911. During the twentieth century other new bulbs have been introduced from the wild to our gardens. The names of such collectors as Wilson, Forrest, Ward, Elliot, Farrer, Rock, Balls, and others rightly belong with those of the great plant introducers of the ages.
The history of plant collecting is a long and glorious one. Justice cannot be done to it here. I shall be content if I can awake in a few of those who plant bulbs today an appreciation of the work of the princes and emperors, the monks and missionaries, the soldiers and sailors, the professional plant collectors and the amateurs, the gardeners and nurserymen, the naturalists and botanists, whose devotion and labours through the centuries have made it possible for us to decorate our gardens and homes with gorgeous bulbous plants from all parts of the world.
But our indebtedness does not cease there. We owe much, too, to the keen-eyed selectors and propagators of those plants that varied from their fellows in a sufficiently favourable manner to make their continuance desirable, and to the hybridisers who by crossing wild species have produced new kinds; for modern bulb gardening relies fully as much on varieties that are developed and fostered by man as it does upon nature's wild types.