Scillas, chionodoxas, and crocuses usher in spring
BY JOE ECK
THE FIRST GARDEN I EVER HAD, and that my companion, Wayne Winterrowd, and I made together, was around an old farmhouse we rented, along with its fields and woods and streams, just outside Boston. One April morning I walked up a little-trafficked road and past a venerable clapboard cottage shaded by two old sugar maples. There was nothing there I would have called a garden, only a hoary old lilac, a straggly forsythia. But spread beneath the trees, under the shrubs and in the grass itself was a carpet of little blue bulbs, so thick that they made the lawn blue. The little flower was Scilla siberica, new to me then, though familiar to most gardeners. Something of the first wonder I experienced will always cling to it when it appears, here in my garden, in spring. It is so blue, bluer even than the April sky at its clearest, that it is easy to be passionate about it.
Little things are dear to most people, perhaps in part because they seem so fragile. But Scilla siberica, which is never more than six inches tall, is as brave as it is charming. Here in Vermont, where I now garden, it blooms in April, while snow still lurks in the woods and may well fall in the night. Each purplish hued stem carries two or three nodding, bell-like flowers, arresting enough when one finds a plant alone. But S. siberica is seldom alone. An exuberant self-seeder, a single bulb is soon a small patch, and a small patch a large one—often enough, when undisturbed, a whole lawn. It is among the most shade-tolerant of bulbs, flowering in the thin soils under dense old shade trees as well as in sunny, open spaces. It is never in the way of anything, and will increase happily as long as it is allowed to mature its foliage, which it always obligingly does by the end of May, asking for only a brief untidiness in lawns and flower beds, for a very generous reward.
Any simple plant of great beauty is of course bound to be “improved.” Thus, with S. siberica, there is a selection, ‘Spring Beauty,’ that is taller by a bit, and of an even richer blue. Its flowers also seem to last longer than those of the simple species, though, as with all improvements, there is a hitch: it seems less able to compete with lawn grass, is certainly less prolific of increase, and so is best kept as a treasure in beds and under taller shrubs.
Scilla siberica is not the only scilla to grow in gardens, or even the only blue one. Scilla bifolia, treasured as a cultivated plant at least since 1568, is also blue, though it is variable—sometimes clear of hue and sometimes violet tinged. The flowers are also more like stars than bells, turned up rather than down, and often the center is pale, almost white, creating a perky, winking look. And both species have forms that are not blue. Scilla bifolia occurs in a washy pink form. ‘Rosea,’ which is not nearly as arresting as the pure species. Blue flowers often do produce pink forms, as with delphiniums, for example, and forget-me-nots. But to most people a pink delphinium is no delphinium at all, and a pink forget-me-not quite misses the mark. But in both flowers—and in S. siberica—the white forms can be of a very pure white, to be treasured for that. So S. siberica ‘Alba,’ especially when grown apart from the blue in a cool, shady corner of the garden among emerging ferns, can be dazzling.
The third scilla available in general commerce was once known as S. tubergeniana, and from the gardener’s perspective, might be still, for its name has been changed to an almost unpronounceable collection of letters, and it is properly S. mischtschenkoana. You may try that if you want to, but most of us will stay with tubergeniana. Still, it is a pretty little bulb, of a blue much paler than any other scilla, tending almost—though not quite—to white, a color memorably described by the late Elizabeth Lawrence as “looking as if they had been dipped in bluing.” Its whole appearance is also larger and stouter than either of its cousins, more like middle-aged maturity than lissome adolescence.
By no means second to scillas, but simply other (and nice for that) are chionodoxas. As with scillas, most gardeners will think that the choicest of them are blue—gentian blue, bright blue, rich blue, Prussian blue, marine blue. Catalog writers never seem to run out of adjectives, and all make the plant seem as desirable as it is.
There are two chionodoxas common in gardens, though confusion has been created by the fact that they have traded their names about. The most frequently grown, Chionodoxa forbesii, was once known as C. luciliae. It bears bright blue flowers that face upward, the better to display their winsome white centers. There can be as many as a dozen little flowers arrayed along a six-inch stem. The plant that is now correctly C. luciliae, however, was once appropriately known as C. gigantea, for its flowers are the largest of the genus, up to half an inch across, but sparingly borne, usually no more than two or three to a bulb. Still, they are splendid, both in the white-eyed blue and in a pristine, pure white. Do not grow them together, however, for then they steal each other’s radiance. Apart, they are most lovely, perhaps more so the white, for its pure flowers can sprinkle the bare earth with stars.
Both C. forbesii and C. luciliae seem to thrive best in sunny conditions, though a third species, C. sardensis, originates from deeply shaded woods in western Turkey, and so can thrive in darker spots, such as under the shade of old rhododendrons, where one’s only other hope would be Vinca minor or a decent bark mulch. It can be quite arresting in such spots, with its tiny, deep blue flowers, each centered with a small, white eye. In our garden, also, we occasionally see one that is double-flowered, gentian blue throughout with no white apparent, though we have never found it in the literature of small bulbs, and it may be a hybrid. However it is, it is beautiful, and we vow each spring, when it appears, to dig it out and give it a place all its own.
Among the small bulbs of spring, the species crocuses are so rich in bluish, lavender, and purple forms—not to mention white, cream, yellow, and bicolors—that they constitute a subject in themselves. They are flowers not just of spring but of autumn, too; for in fact, on the rocky hillsides of Asia Minor, where many species are native, one or another will be in bloom from September to early spring. Still, only a few are truly blue. One that is, C. chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl,’ has soft blue petals shading to a bronze-yellow heart, and with prominent gold anthers. ‘Blue Bird’ also in the chrysanthus group, catches the eye with its alternating petals of creamy white and violet blue, again with brilliant gold anthers. Still, perhaps the bluest blue crocus is one of the larger, later flowering vernus hybrids, ‘Twilight’, whose deep marine blue petals pale only slightly at the throat, with anthers, as always, clear gold.
Like other bulbs native to the stony, mountainous soils of Asia Minor, crocuses demand perfect drainage. They also do best when they can enjoy the full force of the spring sunshine, and the little, early-blooming species will be among the very earliest flowers in the garden. Then they gladden hearts of gardeners and of bees, who travel great distances to find their pollen-rich anthers, almost the first, for them, of the year. But crocuses can be heartbreakers, too, since far less benign creatures than bees are partial to their corms. Unless the soil freezes deep and early, mice and voles will search out every one, leaving only a papery husk behind come spring.
For this reason, we learned years ago to plant all our crocuses in black plastic nursery cans, each covered with a lid of hardware cloth, its corners bent down to clasp the edges. The cans are buried so that the rims and lids lie about two inches below the surface of the soil, and the crocus corms are planted deep, up to eight inches, which prevents them from splitting into tiny cormlets too small to flower. A two-gallon can will hold a dozen species crocus corms comfortably and still leave room for multiplying. Our oldest crocuses planted in this way have been in their cans for 15 years undisturbed, and still flower abundantly each spring. Also, the border perennials that come later grow happily over and into the cans, seeming to cause the crocuses no discomfort at all. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 122.