ODD THAT fashions in bulb flowers change.
There was a time the crown imperial was the most esteemed of all spring blooms, but this week I dropped in at one of the local garden centers and noticed bulbs of this flower had scarcely sold at all.
It's a member of the lily family, and sends up a stalk waist high with leaves neatly disposed along it, and at the top there are several down-facing cups, and the whole is surmounted with a tuft of neat green upward-pointing leaves.
Usually the blooms are red, a tawny red, but sometimes yellow. Formerly there was a handful of named varieties -- there still is, but you never see those named varieties for sale.
The plain fulvous red is as handsome as any, though since the yellow is less common it is more esteemed. Always has been.
If you turn these pendant cups up and look inside, you see a drop, the size of a pea, of nectar hanging from the pistil. You can shake, but it doesn't drop off.The flower was often called the "crown and pearl," which is simply a corruption of "crown imperial"; but the drop of nectar, which suggests a pearl, makes the other name suitable enough.
The bulbs are maybe three times the size of a tulip bulb, and even when perfect they are rather soft. You need not expect a bulb firm and hard as a daffodil or Dutch iris.
They should be planted outdoors now, or within the next month. You will notice the top of the bulb looks a bit like a lily bulb, with overlapping flaps or scales.
The bottom of the bulb should rest about seven inches beneath the surface of the earth, and it is an excellent idea to set it on a bed of sand an inch or two thick. It also works well to lay the bulb on its side, so the tip does not point straight up. This is supposed to prevent surface water seeping into the hole at the tip of the bulb and rotting it, and I think it is worth planting the bulb that way.
It should have sun, or half-sun. Here the crown imperial grows well enough in half-shady beds devoted to azaleas, but I have always thought it liked sun best. I don't suppose anybody has little box-edged beds in full sun any more, but if he does, the crown imperial always looks happy in such a spot.
It is not a bulb to mass, it is not the sort of flower at all that you want 100 specimens of to provide color. No, a single bulb, or a clump of three of four stems, all bearing their curious hanging flowers with tufts of leaves on top, looks best.
It is sometimes called a fox lily (not to be confused with the foxtail lily, which is an Eremurus) because both the bulb and the growing plant have a rank scent like a fox, or a discreetly veiled skunk. I like the smell very much, but not everybody does. It is not especially apparent or strong, usually, but sometimes on a fine hot day in early April you can smell it several feet off.
It's botanical name is fritillaria imperialis. It should not be cut, since that would quite wreck the bulb. If you have several clumps, of course you might cut a stem or two, if you don't mind the smell; but it is a flower for the curious, really, who enjoy turning up the cups and peering inside.
Another sort of bulb that I am glad to see is finding increased popularity in gardens is the wild tulip. There are many sorts of tulips that grow wild in Asia Minor or Central Asia, especially from the highlands of Persia up into Russia and east into Bokhara and Turkestan and those other mysterious states.
All of them are recognizably tulips, but much smaller than the big tulips that flower in April and May. The wild sorts flower about the same time, but many of them are no larger in flower than a peach pit. Some of them grow only three or four inches tall, while others reach 14 or 16 inches.
You might wonder if such flowers are worth growing, and I assure you they are. One of the loveliest is the wild tulipa clusiana, on slender stems 10 to 16 inches tall, with carmine-cherry and white petals alternating.
There are, among these wildings, some of the most gorgeously brilliant of all garden flowers, including 'Red Emperor,' which is merely the wild tulip properly called T. fosteriana. It is an enormous flower, up to eight inches in diameter, of the purest vermillion I can think of in the floral kingdom. There are other wild tulips -- T. praestans, for instance -- of similar coloring but with smaller blooms.
Some little wild tulips are white, with a touch of yellow and green inside, growing no higher than a crocus (T. daystemon or T. tarda) and many are yellowish flushed with bronze. Some are soft buff with cherry-red segments -- buff flushed with cherry (T. chrysantha) and so on.
All the usual wild ones like perfect drainage, such as you find on a sunny bank facing south or west (though they will be fine facing east or north, too). They should be planted with the bases of the bulbs resting about five inches below the surface. It is critical not to plant these bulbs where water stands, or in tenacious wet clay. They do not, as a group, mind heavy soil, but they abhor wet soil in late spring and summer and fall.
How often, along a sunny walk, or in a narrow space at the foot of a sunny garage wall, or in a quite dry sunny patch at the base of a bird bath, these little wild tulips would be a delight. As bulbs go, they are not costly -- usually less than large garden tulips.
Even the smallest ones are perfectly visible, I assure you, making tufts of leaves spangled with flowers like waxy stars. Last year I was pleased to see that by the end of the fall planting season none of the wild tulips were unsold at the stores I checked.
Suppose you have never grown them. I would suggest six bulbs of three or four different kinds. Or if space and the budget permit, 10 bulbs each of all the kinds you can find. But even a few are rewarding.
Among other merits, most of them persist for years from an original planting. I have noticed a number of kinds seed. I once had a clump of about 50 bulbs of T. clusiana, that bloomed every year for the 15 years I kept up with them, and I was told once at Monticello, Jefferson's country house at Charlottesville, that the T. clusiana I saw there were descendants of bulbs Mr. Jefferson planted in the 19th century.
In general, a sunny spot where the earth dries out nicely in summer is what they all like, and I never heard anybody who planted a few, and had them years afterward, complain of the few cents they cost.