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Ecstasy and Agony 

Seasonal tulipmania lives on in rare bulb catalogs

So there you are, wandering around the garden center, feeling like you are wasting your time because the garden is so overgrown that there’s not room to plant anything anyway. Back home, there are weeds to be pulled and the last of the summer vegetables to be harvested. The season has come to an end too soon. It’s irritating. Sulking around to the garden center is not helping. But then you turn around and you see them. Bulbs.

Bulbs are the consolation prize at the end of the summer, the little digestif that finishes the meal and makes the long night — that would be winter, if you’re still following this metaphor — easier to bear. And the best part is that new bulbs, those gloriously fat, perfectly primed arrivals from Holland, are pretty much guaranteed to bloom on schedule in the spring. You put a bulb in the ground and you make a solid bet with Mother Nature. Spring will come. Daffodils will bloom. There’s this long, dark, cold, miserable winter to get through, but you’ll survive, and so will your narcissi.

This would all be a wonderfully satisfying experience if it wasn’t for Old House Gardens ( and other purveyors of rare bulbs. I cruise the “Web-Only Rarities” section of Old House Gardens’ site far too often, turning up treasures like this ‘Gigantea’ hyacinth, which dates back to 1859 and is described like this:

“Extinct? That’s what the experts thought. Not even the Hortus Bulborum grew ‘Gigantea.’ But then Alan Shipp of the UK National Collection got a surprise phone call from the Lithuanian ambassador’s wife and before long a box full of old hyacinths arrived that had been preserved by a botanic garden behind the Iron Curtain — including this Victorian beauty. With a ‘large truss’ of ‘delicate rose’ florets, ‘Gigantea’ was the most expensive single hyacinth offered in the 1870 catalog of the Olm Brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts. Very limited supply, from England. Sorry, no photo.”

These people know that they’re dealing with bulb junkies. They don’t even have a photo to post, and they’re confident that they can sell the bulbs for 11 bucks apiece. That’s right, $11 for one bulb. Limit three. And no, you can’t have one. They’re already sold out.

I didn’t buy one, although any bulb that involves a surprise phone call from the wife of the Lithuanian ambassador is totally intriguing to me. I also didn’t buy a true broken tulip, a deep purple flamed variety that “Tulipomaniacs of the 1630s would have given a fortune to own.” I would only have to give $13.25 to own one, and yet I did not. In all, I managed to resist dozens of $10 and $20 tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. With the money I saved, I picked up some lilies, including the orange and gold Leopard lily, a California native that was described as early as 1848, and two lilies bred by McKinleyville flower breeder Leslie Woodriff. Old House sells his ‘Black Beauty’ and his ‘White Henryi,’ both of which are tough and glorious and well worth growing in memory of Mr. Woodriff.

I’m ripping out some bulbs this year, too. Well, not bulbs, technically. Rhizomes. After a difficult and ultimately unsatisfying relationship with bearded irises, I’ve had it. They’re bullies. The rhizomes form dense mats that don’t allow anything else to grow. If they bloom at all, their season is so short and sporadic that you might not even notice it happened. And then their withered old foliage must remain on the plant in service of next year’s blooms, which is just intolerable and unsightly. Now, I know that some of this is my fault. You’re supposed to divide irises every four years — the suggestion is to divide them during presidential election years, perhaps as a way of relieving some frustration — but I can’t be bothered to divide mine and this is the real reason for their lack of performance. Regardless, I’m through with them. Our little affair is over. I’m moving on.

Meanwhile, the time for planting bulbs is here. Buy them now while the selection is good, and remember that size really does matter — you want big, healthy bulbs with no mushy spots or sprouts. Buy some organic bulb food or bone meal, and feed your new bulbs and all your existing bulbs at the same time. I’ll be back in a couple weeks with another great source for rare bulbs, so stay tuned.

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Amy Stewart

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