Thursday, April 21, 2011

Native Bulbs

Scilla growing under a Sargent Crabapple
at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA.
Spring is ushered in by a plethora of flowering bulbs. Despite my inclination toward natives I still plant all kinds of exotic bulbs. I especially like seeing the blue carpets of Scilla under trees and Crocus sprouting randomly in a lawn. So last fall, this got me thinking, what about native bulbs?

Crocus tommasiniansus between Prairie Dropseed mounds.

Some native bulbs that I knew of were Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Camas (Camassia sp.). To check for more ideas I did a search of the USDA Plants Database looking for North American natives that are propagated from bulbs gave a list of 30 plants, including Alliums, Camassia, Iris and Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Blue-eyed grass). For corms, 17 Species were listed including Dicentra, Hypoxis (Yellow Star grass) and Liatris. (Note that all of the data for every single plant in this database is not fully stocked, so there are gaps, but it is still a useful tool, especially at the Genus-level.)

I decided to focus on the first three. Finding a source for these plants was not trivial, but after many hours on the internet I found a nursery in West Virginia that propagated their own natives: Sunshine Farm and Gardens.  Also, they had all of the species I was after – one stop shopping!

No bloom on this one.

My best result, so far, has been with the Trout Lily, aka Dogtooth Violet, which began sprouting up in early April. At first it blended in with the early tulip foliage, but they distinguished themselves by the mottled coloration on the topside of the leaf. This coloration can be likened to that of a trout. (The backside of this leaf was a flat green, just like the tulip foliage.) A second plant, this one with a bloom, was initially more elusive, but certainly worth finding. Once opened, this small flower was hard to miss. this bloom lasted 7-10 days.  As these were rather small bulbs when I put them in, I may have lost them amongst the Tulips in the leafy mulch that I used.  These plants will spread by stolons, so if they are happy, I will eventually have a good sized patch.

In bud...

...two days later.


This brings up a very important point. It is a very good idea to sketch out a map or plan of where you put in your bulbs, because no matter how significant or important they seem at planting time in the fall, the memory fades by springtime. This is my current situation at home (however, not a mistake I make when working for clients).

So far I have not located the Bloodroot that I put in. Its deeply lobed foliage may allow it to blend in with many of the other spring plants that are active right now, like the Columbine, Coral Bells and Geraniums. And, if it’s not blooming, this may be a lost cause. Again, if I had only mapped out where these were put in I would know where to focus my search.

Most of the Camassia that are easily available are cultivars of species native to the Western US, like the Small Camas, Camassia quamash. The only species of Camassia native to the Eastern US is the Atlantic Camas, Camassia scilloides, with a native range from Georgia to Pennsylvania and west to Texas. Since Camas prefers moister areas, I did not save any for myself, but I did put some in for clients with more appropriate conditions (also where I did do a map). So I will be paying them a visit soon to see how they are doing. The Atlantic Camas has a preference for limestone-rich soils, so it may be a good choice in a residential setting for planting near a foundation.