Completed just last year for our 150th anniversary, the new approach to the Ridgway Visitor Center includes a long median strip. Once grass, this bed now showcases intensive seasonal color. Keeping the display at the top of the horticultural charts requires frequent replantings and management. A generous donor has just endowed these beds so that they can be planted and maintained with the highest standards during all seasons.
The blockbuster bedding plant at the entry for this spring was Allium schubertii ‘Globemaster,’ the giant flowering onion. Regal purple spheres the size of grapefruits, each held high on an individual stalk, were massed in the center bed. Their exceptional show lasted for weeks! Now is the time to order and plant these magnificent, showy onions in your own garden. (They look just like their culinary cousins when you buy them.) Plant them in large groups for maximum impact.
There are many ornamental onions suitable for Missouri gardens. Jason Delaney, the Missouri Botanical Garden’s ‘bulbmeister,’ lists several ‘Best Bulbs’ on the Garden’s website. A longtime standard in gardens, and easily available, is A. giganteum, with its apple-sized, long-lasting compact globes of purplish flowers. Allium schubertii has a number of varieties that add flair to the garden, with dried clusters that continue to give form in the garden for months after the plants bloom. ‘Ambassador,’ ‘Firmament,’ and Gladiator’ are some great big-boy blue onion selections.
My personal favorite is a diminutive species with soft lavender flowers, Allium senescens, or twisted allium. It was one of the first plants my grandmother shared with me for the little corner of her big garden that she made mine. The textural contrast between the spiraling thin wands of onion and the round chunkiness of the neighboring hens-and-chicks still stands out in my mind 40 years later as a great combination. What I didn’t know then, and do now, is that twisted allium is self-seeding and almost weedy, providing a great choice for success for a novice gardener. And in a pinch, it can be a stand-in for chives on a baked potato.
No place in Missouri has a better display of naturalized daffodils than Shaw Nature Reserve. In April, there are tens of thousands of bobbing yellow flowers splashed all over the rolling hills around the lake. Peter and I make an annual pilgrimage to enjoy the splendid display.
Julie loves to plant once and be done. To revisit every square foot of nearly 5 acres each year is not possible for one person. She wants plants that naturalize—plant them once and enjoy them for decades. Daffodils suit this need to perfection; some of the old-fashioned cultivars that become established freely include ‘King Alfred’ and ‘Professor Einstein.’ Julie has some ‘Einstein’ cultivars at the south end of the garden that have been flourishing for 25 years!
This year, I hope to have time to plant some ‘Mary Gay Lirette’ daffodils, a newer split corolla fancy form with an elegant pink, ruffled, flat-faced center on a white skirt. A couple of Julie’s favorites include N. ‘Sagitta,’ a huge lemon-yellow trumpet form with an apricot tube, and N. ‘Delibes’ a delectable orange on yellow combination. Debra Pratt, an American Daffodil Society judge, recommends her favorites of N. jonquilla (the fragrant jonquil) and its division 7 companions (one of the groups of daffodils). Another choice variety is ‘Van Sion,’ also known as N. telemonius ‘plena,’ or the double daffodil. This selection has been grown for many centuries and remains popular today as a pass-around plant. ‘Tahiti’ is a different reliable double form. Debra also loves N. ‘Actaea,’ the pheasant-eye poeticus, which is a favorite of Julie and Jason Delaney. This late bloomer extends the daffodil season.
FYI: The Missouri Botanical Garden is an approved American Daffodil Society (ADS) Display Garden and hosts meetings of the Greater St. Louis Daffodil Society (stldaffodilclub.org). They have shows and bulb sales at the Garden. If you want to learn more about the wonderful genus Narcissus and the divisions in which they are grouped, these are the folks in the know. The International Bulb Society (firstname.lastname@example.org) is another useful source for information.
Minor Bulbs for Major Impact
When I became director of the Cape Fear Botanical Garden in Fayetteville, N.C., it was a great delight the first spring to see the native dog-tooth violets appear by the thousands. This fun little yellow bell of a flower has a pair of trout speckled leaves that take on the dapple of the woodland floor. The species, Erythronium dens-canis (yes, literally “dog tooth”), is so named because of the shape of the bulb. The showy cultivar E. ‘Pagoda’ has larger, bright yellow blossoms and it does very well here.
Peter and I had the pleasure of visiting a Pennsylvania garden, Chanticleer, at just the right moment to enjoy a massive planting of Camassia. Several species and cultivars were spread out in a wide swath over a wet, grassy meadow, their tall blue to violet torches pointed to the heavens. The bulbs were an important food for Native Americans for centuries. Beautiful in shades of white, lavender, and several stunning blues, from electric to sky blue. ‘Danube’ is one of the darkest.
A combination of bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica, with varieties alba and rosea) and Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) is located on our main Garden grounds around Henry Shaw’s mausoleum. When these bulbs are in full bloom, their display forms a lovely cloud floating atop the groundcover. Henry would be proud of this stunning display! When they are done, they disappear like magic into the groundcover. H. ‘Excelsior’ is a Plant of MeritTM.
One of the best, often overlooked bulbs is the summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum). Blooming with the last of the daffodils, the variety ‘Gravetye Giant’ sends up flower stalks that look like lilies-of-the-valley on steroids. The white bell-shaped flowers have tiny green dots that resemble dew on the tips of their petals. Easy to grow and naturalize, they should be treated just like daffodils. They make great fillers in cut flower arrangements and last very well.
An earlier bloomer with a similar common name is Galanthus, the snowdrop. It flowers at the beginning of the daffodil season and forms sturdy, naturalized clumps. It is easy to grow and may be left in the ground for decades.
Julie is no fan of tulips; she thinks they are too much work for too little reward. She makes an exception for the little species tulips in the rock garden. Jason is fond of Tulipa batalinii, an apricot-yellow species tulip that he is willing to fight the voles over. Don’t miss the T. bakeri and T. clusiana cultivars. I’d stomp a vole for those little sweeties.
I would be remiss not to mention a stunning diminutive beauty that is not a bulb but is often lumped in with them: the Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata). Most often seen in the wild form, with brilliant rose fuchsia flowers, it is also found in pure white (alba) and with variegated leaves. A terrestrial orchid, it is winter hardy for us, thriving in undisturbed open woodlands. Plant it and leave it alone! Unlike true bulbs, this tiny gem is best planted in the spring.
The most important thing to remember when planting bulbs is that quantity matters. A bag of 25 daffodils or crocus doesn’t create the color statement you see in your mind’s eye. Last year, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Garden, we planted over 150,000 new bulbs. The crocus lawn alone got an additional 10,000 bulbs — all of them planted by volunteers! We regularly deal in thousands of bulbs to achieve the look we want. For a homeowner, a couple hundred bulbs will be a good start.
For more information on Jason Delaney’s Best Bulbs see: mobot.org/gardeninghelp/plantfinder/