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My small-bulb moment - David Wheeler

Pursuits | By ​David Wheeler

White rain lily (Zephyranthes candida)

There is nothing so uplifting, and downright visible, as a small bulb in a pot, says David Wheeler

Small bulbs matter. They matter more to elderly gardeners than they do to younger, fitter and better-abled ones. Why?

These diminutives demand, and handsomely repay, close inspection – something denied the decrepits, among whom I now occasionally include myself.

And it’s not just a question of age. Disabled gardeners of any vintage might find it difficult to go onto their hands and knees -– or to get up again. I’ve tried binoculars but nothing beats eyeball-to-eyeball contact – so the answer is pots. A small bowl, no more than six inches across, will accommodate a dozen or more crocuses or miniature irises – now at or near their peak flowering time.

I know you can’t buy spring-flowering bulbs at the moment – that pleasure belongs to the early-autumn months (which, trust me, will come round again sooner than you think), when the seductive mail-order catalogues plop heavily onto the doormat. But you can buy them in full flower now at garden centres, supermarkets and florist’s shops and on some garage forecourts.

Snap them up; if they’re in bud or look freshly opened, the flowers will last for several weeks in a none-too-overheated room. And it’s indoors, too, that their fragrance is enhanced and gladly trapped. Hyacinths especially – and some of the small-flowered daffodils – will release knockout fragrances.

When the foliage has died back, the bulbs can be transferred to the garden or ‘rested’ in some odd corner until the end of the year, when the compost can be remoistened to encourage the little darlings to perform their miracles all over again.

Now you may say, ‘But I don’t have a garden – and it seems such a pity to trash them when their moments of glory fades.’ That’s when you pass them on to chums who do have a garden, where many of the bulbs will multiply in number and reappear for years to come, carrying with them sweet memories of your generosity.

Out among my trees, I have increasing swathes of April-flowering daffs that were given to me in pots when I was recovering from a severe illness more than a decade ago. I never pass them without recalling the kind friends who gave them to me – or, more profoundly, the dark days which I survived.

What, then, to look out for? Snowdrops remind everyone of winter walks along rural lanes and churchyards studded with white pristine bells. Like our sparrows and robins, snowdrops more than any of our native bulbs deserve freedom.

>span class="s3">exotic and less familiar. Fritillaries fall fully into that category: even the cheap-as-chips snake’s-head ones, Fritillaria meleagris – purple-chequered or milky white. Close encounters with these campanulate flowers reveal botanical draughtsmanship of the most exquisite kind.

All the Iris reticulata varieties, in shades of blue and maroon – and their yellow-flowered cousin, I danfordii – four to six inches high at most, are highly decorative and, again, fabulously intricate in their structure and appearance. Site the bowls strategically for head-high viewing that precludes unnecessary bending.

Windowsills in our various rooms this season include some new try-outs: crocus-like Zephyranthes candida from South America, Tecophilaea cyanocrocus (the so-called Chilean blue crocus, found wild in alpine meadows above Valparaíso), some of the shorter-growing ornithogalums and a few bellevalias, a classy kind of grape hyacinth to the untutored eye.

And nothing is comelier than a wide bowl of true grape hyacinths – Muscari armeniacum and its kin. Or, most simply, and possibly the cheapest to buy, lapis-lazuli-coloured scillas. Dwarf tulips follow. Their wide-open petals, in full sun, are as welcoming as a lover’s arms.

David’s Instagram account is @hortusjournal

This story was from February 2021 issue. Subscribe Now