Blurps of Gaiety

February 2nd, 2010

by Tom Fischer

Better than your birthday: a box of rare and unusual bulbs.

That’s how an unsolicited and (can you believe it?) unpublished manuscript, received many years ago at Horticulture magazine, described the effect of bulbs in the garden. Not a terribly euphonious expression, but vivid nonetheless. I like to drop it into conversation with exceedingly high-toned gardeners. (“You know, I really think you could use a few more blurps of gaiety along that path.”)

I’ve been thinking about bulbs because the first crocuses and reticulata irises have shown themselves in the front garden (along with the slugs and cutworms that like to snack on them), and because one of my favorite bulb catalogs has just arrived in the mail. (There’s no website.) The cover says simply, “Jānis Rukšāns Bulb Nursery”; inside, there are treasures galore. (Full disclosure: Timber Press, my employer, is the publisher of Jānis’s book Buried Treasures, and of his forthcoming book on crocuses, and I am his editor. However, I was a customer of Jānis’s long before our professional relationship began.)

Jānis’s nursery is in Latvia (the catalog, fortunately for most of us, is in English), and he has spent decades scouring Europe and Asia for choice bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes (all collected as seed and subsequently nursery-propagated). These are not the plants that the Dutch turn out by the billions—they’re the gems of high mountains and desert plateaus, of Siberian forests and Greek hillsides. And be warned: because they’re true rarities, they sometimes carry a price tag that will leave you reeling with sticker shock—there are species that sell for 50, 80, or even 100 euros per bulb. Is it lunacy to pay that much for a plant that might wind up as slug fodder? That depends on the depth of your obsession and whether you think the children really need that college education.

But leaf through the catalog, and I promise you will encounter scores of plants you’ve never even heard of, let alone seen—astonishing alliums, curious crocuses, fabulous fritillaries, incredible irises, memorable muscari, scintillating scillas, tantalizing tulips. Most dazzling of all are the tuberous corydalis, and if you don’t grow any now, you’ll want to, you’ll need to, after reading some of the descriptions. The majority of the species offered are shade tolerant, hardy to about Zone 4, and ridiculously easy to grow. Why they haven’t become a mainstay of the early-spring garden is a mystery I can’t even begin to fathom.

Here are a few of the plants (most of them quite affordable, actually) that I’ve gotten from Jānis:

Allium litvinovii,a tough but beautiful ornamental onion from Uzbekistan.

Crocus abantensis, a Turkish species that comes close to true blue.

Corydalis schanginii subsp. ainae--a "bulb belt" species that, unlike the woodland corydalis, prefers a warm, dry summer.

Crocus malyi 'Sveti Roc'.

Iris rosenbachiana 'Harangon'--an impossibly beautiful Juno iris.

Tulipa karabachensis is like a dwarf lily-flowered tulip.

I will say simply that few things give me as much pleasure as the arrival in early fall of a small brown box bearing a Latvian return address. (You don’t, by the way, need an import permit, and Jānis supplies the requisite phytosanitary certificate and other documentation.) To order the catalog, send $5 cash to Jānis Rukšāns Bulb Nursery, P.O. Stalbe, LV-4151 Cesis distr., Latvia. And don’t dilly-dally—orders need to be placed by August 1.

And if you decide that the children really do need that college education, don’t forget some of the other wonderful bulb merchants who are closer to home and whose offerings aren’t priced quite so stratospherically (Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, Odyssey Bulbs, Old House Gardens, Pacific Rim Native Plant Nursery, Telos Rare Bulbs). Because, in this sad and weary world, we need as many blurps of gaiety as we can get.

6 Responses

  1. Genevieve says:

    I’m still reeling from your ability to decline an article with that phrase contained within. I think we need a horticultural version of The Onion for such fine offerings.

    And oh my gosh, I need that Corydalis.

    Sorry Mary Ann, my reticulatas are shameless, brazen hussies as well! They’ve been up for two weeks…

  2. Well, after seeing those beauties, my snowdrops and cyclamen coum seem rather mundane. How delightful that you shared the source AND the photos.

  3. Paul Bonine says:

    Wow Tom, those are luscious and drool worthy.
    speaking of which, I saw the first Daffodils blooming today.

  4. Mary Ann says:

    I think it is very unfair of you to be flaunting the fact your reticulatas are already “showing themselves.” I say they are hussies.

  5. I love bulbs and mine are just beginning to peek their little heads out of the ground. Thanks for the heads up on this bulb retailer.~~Dee

  6. Kate says:

    I’m ready for a blurp or two! (More than about two blurps starts to hint less of gaiety than stomach upset, which is not the effect I hope to garner upon sight of my bulb collection.) I love all the unusual crocus species – Jane McGary had some really good ones. Thanks for the lovely photos. Crocus abantensis looks like silk. That’s not what is meant by “watered silk,” is it?

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