Bulbs of fall are blooming
September 10, 2007
My Colchicum byzantinum are blooming unexpectedly early this year. Did you know that there are bulbs that flower in the fall? Colchicums are one of them. They like good garden soil, a bit of shade and water and should be planted shallowly by Labor Day. Disreputable nurseries sometimes sell them as novelties to bloom on a windowsill without water or soil, exhausting a plant programmed to bloom a few weeks after harvesting and replanting. It’s just plain rude. Neither deer nor rodents have touched my colchicums, perhaps because the poison colchicine they contain protects them.
I’ve had the most success with Col-chicum byzantinum, a species originating in Byzantium, now more prosaically called Turkey, which has been cultivated since the 16th century. (In 1951 the recommended pronunciation of Colchicum was now it is a change in fashion. I have the bad habit of repeating a plant name in my own pronunciation if someone says it differently, which sounds irritatingly like a correction even if I have the grace to add a question mark. Ignore me, my insecurity is showing.)
The white buds push through the earth like slender pristine asparagus spears. They elongate and swell at the tips to unfold into lilac-pink, white-starred, chalices with 2-inch lobes, rather like supersized long-tubed crocuses, though they are completely unrelated. One patch has more than 15 fully open blooms and again as many in bud or just emerging, clustered together in a small pink pool, quite lovely. There is a very fine white form that I am hankering for. Another patch is a bit smaller, probably because I wounded the corms planting a geranium and a flowering tobacco practically on top of it, to mask the hole left by a resting rhubarb. The geranium and tobacco leaves do make a nice framework for the flowers. If only I could always remember where I have planted my bulbs, or would draw little maps to remind me, as David Salmen suggests.
Actually, it is easy to remember where I put the colchicums because they take even more thought than other bulbs to situate. To gain strength for the flower splurge, they throw up a voluminous sheaf of tropical looking leaves, not at bloom time as would be fitting, but in spring. Louise Beebe Wilder declares, “Moreover, this foliage ends in a most unseemly orgy of yellowing dissolution, long drawn out and unlovely. No one looking at the slim trim vases emerging naked from the earth in autumn could suspect them of such overindulgence in the matter of foliage, or such a lack of dignity in passing on.” Odyssey Bulbs, a company offering over 30 kinds of Colchicum, gets huffy about this assessment and counters, “… this is a contemptible calumny. Yes, they do go off in early summer, but did you ever hear a tulip chastised for displaying this behavior?” Christopher Lloyd deems the lusty foliage an asset and dismisses gardeners who fuss about its demise. Try planting colchicums yourself and see which camp you fall into.
The foliage in my spring garden is as amazing in its way as the flowers are now, quite exotic. I don’t stop growing Oriental poppies because they go dormant and leave first a mess, then a hole, do I? In fact, the pea vine, poppies and rhubarb help shelter the Colchicum leaves before they in turn retreat into dormancy. My biggest patch of byzantinum blooms between the stems of an aster and Nepeta x “Six Hills Giant” which gracefully bow over the space vacated by a flaming orange poppy. I set my tropical potted angel’s trumpet, Brugmansia, among them, where it towers over the bulb, another touch of the exotic. I also filled in with prosaic but pretty annual signet marigolds. Guess what? They happen to be the exact same golden color as the centers of the aster and the stamens of the colchicums!
The good news and the bad news is that my fall-blooming Colchicums are flowering. I know school has started but these bulbs (corms for truth) began to flower in the middle of August, and that just isn’t right. I checked my garden notes and bloom times they are indeed a’ changin’.
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What can you do? I guess I’ll just have to plant all those autumn-blooming bulbs I haven’t tried yet for which I have no expectations but flowers with the freshness of spring.