What’s the difference between new bulbs and the older varieties? Heirloom bulbs are both hardy and adaptable, after all most vintage bulbs have managed to survive throughout centuries, while others have been cultivated into more modern varieties. Many heirlooms are so well adapted to challenging environments that they will thrive in nearly every type of climate, in all types of gardens. It may be difficult for the novice gardener to notice the difference between heirloom bulbs and the more modern varieties. However, the seasoned gardener knows right off the bat. Heirloom bulbs provide colors, forms, and specific traits unsurpassed by newer bulbs. One of the most significant characteristics indicative to heirloom varieties is their intoxicating fragrance. Heirloom bulbs also offer a living connection with gardeners of the past, such as your grandmother’s garden, bursting with colorful, fragrant blooms and magnificent foliage.
Small or fleshy bulbs should be planted as soon as possible. However, when placing heirloom bulbs out in the garden during spring, it may help to consider this tip: “planting too late is often better than planting too early.” In spite of their hardiness, like many other types of bulbs, heirlooms are more vulnerable to cooler temperatures. If it’s still too cool to plant them outside, most of these bulbs can be stored briefly in a cool, dry, dark place in bags. Leave bags loosely open, however, to allow for some air circulation. Most heirloom bulbs can be planted in the fall as well. To help keep the soil warmer, during spring or fall, apply a layer of mulch, such as straw or pine needles. Most bulbs require well-drained soil to thrive, and this is also the case with heirloom varieties. If possible, avoid planting heirloom bulbs in clay soil, but if this the only soil available within the landscape, simply amend it with organic matter like compost or peat moss. A handful of sand and gypsum may help as well.
While there are far too many varieties to name, many of my old-time favorites include tulips, gladiolus, tuberose, lilies, elephant ears, daffodils, and camassias. Tulips became wildly popular during the 1600s and were the inspiration for “Tulip mania,” reaching its peak in 1637. Tulip mania was fueled by a desire for tulips with streaks of color on the petals, such as with the dazzling ‘Silver Standard’ variety, white splashed with red. A harmless virus referred to as the “tulip-breaking virus,” which is spread by aphids, causes these streaks of color. The Byzantine gladiolus (Gladiolus byzantinus) is another beautiful heirloom bulb worth having in the garden. This bulb, with its brightly colored magenta flowers, has been grown in North America since the colonial days.
The Aztecs considered the tuberose to be a sacred plant. Commonly seen in gardens of the past and one of my favorites, the double tuberose, P. tuberosa ‘Pearl’ is undeniably fragrant with double, pink flowers. Discovered in Argentina in the 1500s, the White Rain Lily (Zephyranthes candida) opens up after each rain, revealing its white, crocus-like blooms in early fall. Rain lilies are tolerant of a variety of soils, making them suitable in nearly any landscape and the needle-like foliage adds interesting texture. Other old-time varieties include shades of yellow and pink. The spidery, coral-red flowers of the Red Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata) are perfect for adding splashes of color to any garden. This heirloom bulb has also been referred to as Magic Lily because the foliage appears and then vanishes. When this foliage disappears, the bare flower stalks suddenly pop up with clusters of buds on top, and the flowers then appear almost magically after heavy rains.
I love the tropical-like feel that Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) give to the garden. Their large, heart-shaped foliage adds charm as well as dimension; but if you’re looking for one that offers additional interest, the leaves of ‘Illustris’ are a striking purplish-black with bright, apple-green veins. These look great alongside daffodils. Daffodils are probably the most popular of heirloom bulbs, having been around since the 1200s. There are so many different types that it’s difficult choosing one particular kind for the garden; however, one that has caught my attention is the Poet’s Narcissus. The Poet’s Narcissus (Narcissus poeticus 'Plenus') was introduced in 1601. This heirloom bulb is a close relative of the daffodil, also known as Pheasant’s Eye Daffodil, and produces fragrant white, blooms with a small yellow cup accented by red fringe. Camassia species are great heirlooms for attracting both hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. They also look great planted with perennials, such as bleeding heart, and other heirloom bulbs like jonquils and tulips. Camassia leichtlinii is one that will fit in nearly anywhere with various colors of white, cream, purple, or smoky blue flowers.
Most bulbs today are produced for cut flowers and container growing, whereas the older varieties were actually bred for the back yard. Even with the hardiness and adaptability of heirloom bulbs, their numbers are dwindling. This isn’t due to their lacking of any kind but because fewer gardeners are choosing to grow them. The only way to keep them alive for centuries more is to continue growing these precious, timeless wonders. Help rediscover the past by incorporating some old-fashioned bulbs into your own garden.