Tuesday, November 09, 2010

It's Bulb Season...

Every time I go to Home Depot these days I see folks gathered around the flowering bulb display. The beautiful pictures and bags full of interesting looking bulbs are almost too much for a plant lover to pass up. When I see that these individuals have finally made a decision on which bulbs to buy, I feel like I should walk over and explain that – unless handled properly, there’s little chance that they will ever see a flower that looks like the one on the box.

For bulbs to flower in our semi-tropical environment they have to vernalize. That’s a $10 term which means – get exposed to enough cold temperatures to flower. This process makes a lot of sense if you think about it from Mother Nature’s perspective. Most flowering bulbs (i.e. tulips, daffodils, crocus) come from climates that get very cold. To keep them from poking their heads out too early and getting frostbite, Mother Nature came up with this ingenious mechanism of accumulating cold hours (like a kind of clock/calendar) to help bulbs know when spring has arrived. The timing is just a little different for each bulb species/variety (more on this later).

Plants that are not properly vernalized will NOT flower. Without these cold temps, floral induction does not occur and they will remain vegetative. In other words – they only grow leaves. Bulbs that grow only leaves and don’t make flowers are said to be “blind.”

When bulbs are harvested and shipped to retailers they have NOT been exposed to enough chilling hours to vernalize. In places with colder climates it’s pretty easy to do this. You plant bulbs in the fall and the process occurs naturally, resulting in a beautiful display of spring color (that comes back year after year). Here in our semi-tropical environment we don’t get enough cold weather to naturally vernalize most bulbs. Thank goodness!!! I grew up in cold weather and this is a small price to pay not to have to endure freezing temperatures, ice and snow. Give me warm weather any day!!! Oops – kind of got off track there. 

If you want bulbs to flower here along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast you have to fool Mother Nature. Make her think it’s much colder here than it really is. You do that by bringing bulbs home from Home Depot (or wherever) and putting them in the refrigerator NOT in the ground. Keep them in the vegetable drawer of the frig until we get well in to winter, with sustained temperatures in the 40’s. Then plant these now vernalized bulbs in the garden. See the problem here? We don’t usually get sustained temperatures in the 40’s. Oh – and by the way, the vernalization process can go BACKWARDS too. If refrigerated bulbs are exposed to warm temperatures (above 40 degrees or so), the chilling hours are lost. This is why you don’t see a lot of bulbs in our area and most planted along the coast come up blind.

But wait. There is an option. Chris Wiesinger and the folks at the Southern Bulb Company have identified several heirloom and adapted varieties that have low chilling requirements. Here’s some info from their website – “SBC specializes in growing and supplying rare bulbs and other "tried and true" species of bulbs for warm climates. Each bulb is full-sized and grown from historic stock, rescued from construction sites or the neglect of abandoned lots. Chris has been growing bulbs for years is committed to providing customers with tough and rare bulbs that you simply will not find anywhere else -- and these tough flower bulbs will propagate and naturalize even in the humidity and heat of the South. Every bulb SBC grows is antique, heirloom, beautiful and adapted.”

The Southern Bulb Company has a great website http://www.southernbulbs.com/catalog/index.php and their entire inventory is available on-line. These bulbs are pricey – but they are specifically selected with our semi-tropical environment in mind. Oh – and BTW, they make great gifts (especially for Christmas) since they shouldn’t be planted until late December – January anyway. Chris has an informative blog you might be interested in as well

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