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My Life with Bulbs

By Diane Dees Tobiason

The Herb Garden by Jennifer Young
"The Herb Garden" by Jennifer Young

As the year comes to a close, most people tend to get excited about family get-togethers, parties and gift giving. I like those things, too, up to a point, but my biggest thrill comes from the boxes of bulbs that line the floor of my sunroom. In another time and another place, I would be called a "bulb fancier." Bulbs and their close relations -- tubers, corms and rhizomes -- fascinate me as much today as they did when I was a child watching my mother plant caladiums.

I have a large variety of bulbous plants in my garden, both spring- and summer-blooming: narcissus, iris, crinum, lilies, gingers, amaryllis, and more. They are a joy to cultivate, but my favorite bulbs are the ones I force every autumn for indoor winter blooming. Like the Victorians, I cannot find enough shelves and windowsills to accommodate my bulb pots, though -- unlike the Victorians -- I don't rely on the blooms to deodorize my home. And since I live in south Louisiana, I can't say that the indoor flowers are a necessity to get me through months of dark, blizzardy weather.

I have them simply because I cannot imagine living without them.

If you live in the North, it's easy to force bulbs by putting the pots in the basement. We're below sea level here, so we can't have basements, and they wouldn't be cold enough, anyway. I keep an old refrigerator in my garage -- the kind that isn't frost-free -- and every October, we turn it on. It gets an even 40-degree chill, and it holds about sixteen pots if you stuff them in there right. The built-in door baskets can also hold several packs of bulbs for planting outdoors: tulips and hyacinths don't return in Louisiana, but I have to have a few each year. The bulbs stay dark and cold for weeks, just like they would if they were in the ground in the proper climate, and although I can't see them, I know that they are making preparations more elaborate than I can understand.

I like to force narcissus and tulips. The miniature narcissus like Minnow and Tête-à-Tête are my favorites. I crowd as many as possible into each fertilized pot, and label it with the name and transition date. Because there is nothing to suck the moisture out of the pots, I water sparingly. On the appointed dates, I bring the pots out and place them in my office, the darkest room in our house, for a week. Shockproof, they are then ready to come out into the light and put on their show.

The tender bulbs are less trouble. Paperwhites and amaryllis of every color are literally all over my house during the holidays. White petals streaked with red, iridescent pink blooms, and bunches of white narcissus tied with raffia poke out of baskets, urns and bowls.

Then there are the white, blue, pink and violet hyacinths that bloom in water. My collection of glass vases includes several Victorian reproduction hyacinth-forcing vases, and they are stunning in cobalt blue and shining teal. They begin their journey in the darkness of the garage, and as the roots develop, they, too, are brought in and placed where the light can show off both the flowers and their containers.

I have been handling bulbs for many years now, but I am in no less awe of them today than I was long ago. How does the most magnificent of flowers emerge from this scaly brown, nondescript object? Petals can be streaked, mottled, speckled, even diamond-dusted, and stems can be over seven feet tall. If planted outdoors, many bulbs are placed deep in the ground to protect them from freezes (except in Louisiana, where they are susceptible to rot). If bulbs or rhizomes go totally dormant, you don't see them for months, but you know they are there, driven by some secret genetic code that eventually causes them to explode in patterns of awesome beauty.

How can a reed-thin stem support the ample bloom of a Dutch iris? How do the nodding flowers of the Formosa lily stay attached to their swaying stems? What makes the walking iris travel so quickly underground? Issues of botany, physics, aesthetics and the source of life itself constantly surround the cycles of bulb cultivation and astound those of us who are lucky enough to grow bulbs.

Though we generally associate a love of bulbs with the Victorian period, "tulipmania" took over the Netherlands in the 17th Century, causing an out-of-control futures market and an eventual crash, which left dozens of traders in ruins. The appearance of a "broken" pattern on the petals, caused by a bulb virus, led to this national frenzy of collecting tulips, and was the beginning of the Netherlands' expansive tulip industry. The flower originally came from Turkey, and many of our most beautiful bulbs come from South Africa, Asia, Europe and other parts of the world.

Though we may find it odd to think of 17th Century Dutchmen tossing away their fortunes for a single bulb, there is no denying the splendor of a bulb-born flower. As Wordsworth's heart filled with pleasure when he saw his "host of golden daffodils," so does the heart of a bulb fancier soar upon seeing the rich glow of an antique canna, the imposing sight of a heavily perfumed crinum, or the sculptural elegance of a snow-white spider lily. I cannot think of anything in nature that begins more humbly and matures more elegantly than a bulb, nor can I think of a better winter activity than helping one enter the world in its full splendor.

Diane Dees Tobiason is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her essays and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including: The Raven Chronicles, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, The Melic Review, The Dead Mule and The Louisiana Review. Diane and her husband are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant.



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My Life with Bulbs ]
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