Growing locally-adapted northeastern bulbs as perennials: Guidance from a southern ‘bulb hunter’

Photo courtesy of Chris Wiesinger, The Southern Bulb CompanyCrinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ is well-adapted to many regions of the American South. It blooms during the hottest Southern summer months, usually triggered by a good rain.

Sometimes moving forward involves looking back. I’ve found that to be especially true in the garden. If you need proof, just consider the career of Chris Wiesinger, “The Bulb Hunter” of Golden, Texas.

Like Chris, I love flowering bulbs. They are, of course, popularly regarded as heralds of spring, but actually, as a class of plants, bulbs bring us flowers in summer and fall too. Nevertheless, it is the spring bloomers, which mostly come to us from the Netherlands, that are the most familiar bulbs – and they are spectacular. I’ll be going to the Berkshire Botanical Garden Bulb Show, which runs from March 1-14, 2021 (9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily) to satisfy my appetite for these garden stand-bys. The show is free to the community; advance reservations are required, as are masks. The Garden has promised a greenhouse ablaze with 1,400 bulbs in full bloom over the course of the show, with many exotic treasures as well as the more familiar types such as hybrid tulips.

Hybrid tulips bring me back to Chris Wiesinger. I met him 16 years ago when he was at the very beginning of his career as a bulb hunter. Chris also loved bulbs, but had one objection to the traditional Dutch types: Most of them don’t flourish in the climate and soil of the American South. If subjected to a period of artificial chilling, they will bloom in spring, but they do not survive to rebloom the following year. That actually is a defect of many of the Dutch bulbs, even here in the Northeast. Hybrid tulips, for example, and hybrid Dutch hyacinths, too, flower well just once, before the bulb starts to degenerate. Their flowers are typically much smaller or even absent the second year and thereafter.

Yet as a horticultural student at Texas A&M University, Chris became aware that there were, in addition to the Dutch bulbs, some other bulbs that had been popular in the South in the era before mass marketing. These bulbs typically perform as perennials. Many, once rooted in, flourish virtually without care. In fact, in forays down country roads, Chris would sometimes find these bulbs still growing and blooming around the sites of abandoned homes, often continuing to thrive even after the house itself had vanished. With the permission of the land owners, Chris would dig a start of these bulbs, bring them home and begin propagating them.

With the bulbs he raised in this fashion, Chris founded The Southern Bulb Company to bring his finds to gardeners throughout the Southern states. On the company’s website, you’ll find all sorts of less familiar but glorious bulbs such as crinums, red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata ), naked ladies (Lycoris squamigera), pink rain lilies (Habranthus robustus) and many others.

Unfortunately, for Yankees these bulbs are mostly for ogling – we can only grow them in pots in a greenhouse or heated sun porch in our climate. However, there is an aspect of Chris’s work that does translate to the North. When I caught up again with Chris recently, he told me that he thought his model of identifying locally adapted perennial bulbs would work equally well for us. According to him, I should be searching old home sites in the Northeast to find what would perform as true perennials or even naturalize, spreading spontaneously, in our part of the United States. Old cemeteries, according to Chris, are particularly good hunting grounds. Not for collecting – Chris doesn’t hold with despoiling gravesites, nor do I – but for finding and identifying types of bulbs that will perennialize without regular care in our soils and climates.

You can reserve timed tickets to the Berkshire Botanical Garden Bulb Show at https://www.berkshirebotanical.org/events/bulb-show. If you want to hear more of my conversation with Chris Wiesinger, you’ll find it on the Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books. He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA.

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