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Exploring the Very Modern Virtues of Heirloom Bulbs

Sometimes looking backward points you toward the best way forward. That’s what Chris Wiesinger of Golden, Texas, has found with The Southern Bulb Co., the business he started 16 years ago. He’s learned that rescuing heirloom plants—bulbs specifically—can be a fertile path to garden sustainability.

Lily-like pink and white Crinum powellii bloom in late summer amid tall stalks of Anemone 'Honorine Jobert'. Crinums and other neglect-proof bulbs fascinate nurseryman Chris Wiesinger.

Lily-like pink and white Crinum powellii bloom in late summer amid tall stalks of Anemone 'Honorine Jobert'. Crinums and other neglect-proof bulbs fascinate nurseryman Chris Wiesinger.

Chris has a long history with bulbs. He planted a single hybrid tulip bulb in his parents’ California garden at age 11 and was transfixed by the brilliant red flower that emerged the following spring. It crushed him when no flower appeared the following year, and not even foliage the year after that.

He had an introduction, though, to a more persistent kind of bulbs as an undergraduate studying horticulture at Texas A&M University. One of his professors, Dr. William Welch, an enthusiastic proponent of Texas heirloom plants, sent Chris into the rural backroads to hunt for bulbs that continued to flower—and even spread—without special care in country gardens and abandoned homesteads. The search turned up a wealth of adapted bulbs that flourish in Texas’s idiosyncratic soils and climates, returning year after year, even naturalizing in some cases, often in conditions of total neglect.

In response to a class assignment, Chris developed a plan to establish a business that would bring to market these forgotten treasures. His career as “the Bulb Hunter” was launched.

In his business plan, Chris had intended to serve as a middleman and retailer, but he found that often the bulbs he identified were not available from commercial sources. He went back to those country gardeners to ask for a start of their treasures. When he explained what he was doing, Chris recalls, the response was almost uniformly enthusiastic. (And to this day he finds most landowners and gardeners happy to share.)

Chris took his gathered bulbs and planted them in a field loaned to him by a sweet-potato farmer and Texas A&M alumnus in northeast Texas. The sandy loam proved ideal for bulbs, and the local rainfall was sufficient to make irrigation unnecessary. His original stock increased, with all of the bulbs spreading into clumps and some self-seeding to form colonies, and The Southern Bulb Co. was born, some 16 years ago.

Rain lily (Zephyranthes candida) has proven itself in the dry heat of Texas.

Rain lily (Zephyranthes candida) has proven itself in the dry heat of Texas.

Chris’s finds include a combination of subtropical bulbs, such as Crinum and Lycoris, and heat-tolerant cultivars of more familiar genera like Narcissus and Hyacinthus. Personally, I am fascinated by the wealth of common names for these bulbs; Crinums, for example, are called milk and wine lily, 12 apostles, St. Christopher’s lily, Queen Emma’s lily and swamp lily. This rich nomenclature suggests to me how deeply rooted into the local cultures of the South these bulbs are.

Lycoris aurea is another bulb that Chris has found in neglected homesteads.

Lycoris aurea is another bulb that Chris has found in neglected homesteads.

Unfortunately for northern gardeners, Chris’s stock won’t for the most part overwinter much north of the Mason-Dixon line. But when we recorded an interview for my podcast, Growing Greener, Chris suggested that his approach to locating adapted, sustainable bulbs would transplant successfully to other regions of the country.

In fact, years ago, I was part of an informal fellowship that did something similar with roses. My Texan friends collected China, noisette and tea roses on their “rustling” expeditions to the countryside. In the Northeast, we were more likely to find gallica and rugosa roses surviving in abandoned gardens. In both cases, though, we ended up with plants that would thrive locally with a minimum of care.

Chris recommended that I begin a search for heirloom bulbs in my neighborhood, and I plan to keep my eye out. I’ll visit all the rural cemeteries I can. Chris recommends these as particularly fruitful locations for finding heirloom, adapted bulbs; he would never harvest bulbs there, but these observations can provide hints on what will flourish locally. Chris also said he’s interested in speaking to anyone who has begun to bulb hunt in other regions of the country. If this is you, check out his blog, http://www.bulbhunter.com, and get in touch.

Image credits: Crinum powellii by Acabashi/CC BY-SA 2.0; rain lily by Michael Gras, M.Ed./CC BY 2.0; Lycoris aurea by LiCheng Shih/CC BY 2.0