Event date: Monday 26th January 2015
Speaker: Karen Philips
Write-up by sobel Shaw

January makes me think of bulbs because they are amongst the first group of flowering plants to brave the dark and cold of winter and break into flower.

Our speaker, Karen Phillips, explained at the outset that this is achieved because nearly all hardy bulbs incorporate a form of ‘antifreeze’ into their metabolism. Her factsheet told us that all bulbs need good drainage, and that if you garden on heavy soil, you should always put grit under them when planting.

After covering the basics of what a bulb is, and a word or two about nomenclature, Karen Phillips launched into a whirlwind talk covering bulb growing through the season, but she said the subject was enormous and therefore she had to limit herself to talking about bulbs she grows herself. So we benefitted from knowing her personal favourites – in the Narcissus family ‘Snipe’ and ‘Sweetness’ were discussed as they multiply and clump up quickly.

She suggested that if we didn’t like to cope with narcissus foliage after flowering, we could plant members of the Jonquil group as their foliage is grassy and not as noticeable when it dies back.

Fritillaria meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba
Fritillaria meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba

Whilst talking about Narcissus, she suggested that when picked, their stems are not immersed in water but just a couple of inches perhaps as the total immersion can lead to rotting stems a lot more quickly. It does mean one has to keep topping up the water they stand in regularly, but an interesting idea I shall try.

Another tip was that because Narcissi emit poisonous calcium oxalate, they are not plants sought out by grazing creatures, but also that this chemical is not good for other plants either, so Narcissi should be put in vases on their own, not with other plants.

Her idea of propping up hyacinth pots with twigs from the garden was a good one, and looked quite attractive in the slide we saw, as did the cut tulips curled inside a goldfish bowl with just the bottoms of the stems in two inches of water at the bottom.

Fritillaria meleagris, she said, was one bulb that does enjoy dampness, and that a good way of exhibiting them was to naturalise them into grass. She is planning to plant masses of another member of the genus, F. imperialis, under the fruit trees in her new orchard when she moves later this year – I imagine they will look superb!

Tulipa linifolia 'Bright Gem'
Tulipa linifolia (Batalinii Group) ‘Bright Gem’

She briefly touched on Anemones, Scillas, Alliums, Muscari, Iris and Crocus, but her favourite bulbs of all seemed to me to be the Tulipa family. She explained why modern blousy tulips have to be replanted constantly because they flower from a lateral node and nothing beneath that will flower again and that if you want a display like the one at Howick in tall grass, you need to plant every year.

Because they multiply by stolons, she told us her favourite tulips were the species tulips bulking up over time and flowered reliably year on year.

Tulipa species she recommended were clusiana, praestans, humilis, linifolia and sylvestris. She did explain that these tulips need to be planted a little closer to the surface than other tulips because they need full sun on their tuberous parts in summer to flower well and thrive.

Cyclamen hederifolium
Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen was given a mention, and she suggested we plant C. hederifolium under trees and hedges. It’s clear she enjoys her bulbs and sharing her vast knowledge with us! And she holds a bulb sale day each autumn, selling off the surplus of the 10,000+ bulbs she orders from a reputable company, so if you want to get a piece of the action contact her at www.widehaughhouse.co.uk Tel: 0783 2132 483


Karen has sent us a note and a copy of the handout she brought with her for the bulb talk:-

“What a welcoming group you all were yesterday evening! Apologies for not having enough handouts – please find attached the (bulb notes) handout, which was on the chairs. I hope your bulbs will give you as much pleasure as they do me. Kind regards, Karen Phillips”