Some bulbs will brighten shade garden
Posted: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
Pick up any bulb catalog and 90 percent of the genera and species mentioned call for planting conditions with good drainage as a prerequisite to success. Some of the listings even call for the addition of coarse sand or gravel below the bulb at planting to enhance the drainage.
If you have the wet and shady conditions we have talked about the past few weeks, your bulbous hopes would seem to be pretty well dashed. But, wait, there’s the other 10 percent, and from that little minority can emanate some real possibilities for your soggy woodland.
Years ago I had, from somewhere, a few bulbs of the spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum (“vernal:” of the vernal, or spring, equinox). These are not to be confused with the far more common summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, that abound around old homesites, along with the toughest daffodils. And they have nothing to do with snowdrops, which are an altogether different genus.
Talk about a water-loving bulb. Spring snowflakes have survived — yea, thriven — in even swampy conditions in our woodland and multiplied to the point of having been divided so many times we now have a large plantation. They will even grow in shallow water.
The blooms on both spring and summer snowflakes are borne on stems a foot or so tall, little bells, white with a green frill, several to a stem. Spring snowflakes, as you would guess, bloom earlier than summer snowflakes, as early as late February some years. They also have foliage that is glossier. It is long lasting and if they are grown in an area that has to be mowed it can be a problem when the foliage is cut back too early.
A couple of times since I got my original bulbs, I have bought more and inevitably they have bloomed on short stems. The bloom is often almost hidden in the foliage. Not only that, they mysteriously are rare on the market, though they are of the easiest possible culture. So my first strain seems to be a dandy. I wouldn’t take a farm in Georgia for them.
Grape hyacinths are tolerant of fairly wet conditions, though not as much so as the snowflakes. I have them in slightly less damp, but still heavy, soil and deep shade, where they perform well.
Many daffodils will take less than perfect drainage. The inestimable “Rijnfeld’s Early Sensation,” which I’ve gone on about for years now, is valuable for its early bloom, often before Christmas, and carrying right on as we speak.
Some other trumpet daffs and related narcissi have proven tolerant of poor drainage as well. Among them is the ubiquitous miniature “Tete-a-Tete,” available at every bulb outlet in the country. Better, to me anyway, is Jumblie, a sister seedling of Tete-a-Tete but with reflexed yellow petals and a darker trumpet. It grows to only six inches or so and blooms early. I like miniatures naturalized. They are less subject to severe weather that is likely to occur in late winter.
I’ve had no problem with the summer blooming surprise lilies, or more poetically “naked ladies,” in shade and wet. These are common as fleas on a speckled pup. They put up foliage in spring, die down by midsummer, then send up three-foot stalks from bare ground bearing several lily-like blossoms that are as fragrant as, well, naked ladies.
Starting with a few bulbs 30 years ago, we now have hundreds, in both shade and sun. Why they are so expensive to buy is a mystery; they multiply apace at the root.
Not technically a bulb but sold by bulb companies along with their other wares, is Italian arum. I have it in sun and wet shade alike and it thrives both places.
Botanically Arum italicum, it shows unmistakable kinship to the many other arums known as houseplants. Its leaves, the most valuable asset, are arrowhead-shaped, and the bloom consists of a white spadix and a spathe almost hidden underneath, much in the manner of the houseplant, “peace lily.”
The spathe, however, bears a stalk of brilliant red berries in summer, after the leaves have died away. These stand erect, to a foot tall, and are visible from a long distance.
The leaves, in the variety Marmoratum or Pictum, are brightened with dramatic white lines of variegation. They emerge from the soil, oddly enough, in autumn and remain fresh as long as temperatures don’t fall below about 10 degrees. Even if they die away, more will emerge in spring.
This is a tough, deer-proof plant that offers three seasons of attraction and does it under most any growing conditions.
Spanish bluebells, Hyancinthoides hispanica, tolerate a lot of shade and less than perfect drainage. Here again is an easy bulb, producing blue (or white or pink in some varieties) bells atop foot tall stems. An established clump will produce many stalks.
The foliage of Spanish bluebells is fairly voluminous and long lasting. This is of no consequence in a naturalized situation in woodland, but where early mowing is desired they are not suitable. Ours, fortunately, are sited in woods.
These weeks of discussion on plants suitable for shade and wet conditions have only scratched the surface. It only proves there are more plants than you would imagine that will work under any kind of less than perfect situation.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 2.9.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path