Digging for Spring Color 

Tulipmania and other psychosocial substrates

Over the past few weeks, I've flown to Florida and back for my in-laws' 65th anniversary and then driven to California to drop off my son and visit my aging mother. Having ventured into the habitats of irrational insecurities and repressed issues, the surreal quality of the landscapes was a comfort to me. Nuances of coast-to-coast relationships with four generations on both sides of the family made plant ID seem simple by comparison. I busied myself with a study of Joshua trees and Pond Cypress. On the long drive, after tear-fogged good-byes, I scrutinized the change of colors in the bug excrement on the windshield, and noted the striking similarities between dominant blossoms and insects' metabolic by-products. It all looks like snot. As long as I concentrated on bugs, instead of Bach or Patsy Cline on the CD player, I could clear my eyeballs. I had the full moon over the Nevada desert and, without plant material to observe, I cranked BB King and Bruce Springsteen loud enough to startle the jackrabbits and shut down the tear glands.

Just as the plant material of the desert is foreign to the acidic conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest, so might tulips be to Boise had Jonny Appleseed not enticed settlers ever further west with hard apple cider. I've promised before that I would regale you with tales of how plants have affected our lives, and on a grander scale than those little tantrums in the crabgrass.

For me, the cognitive challenge of how tulips have become a delight to so many is the contradiction that tulips detest a saturated medium and rot in heavy soils, yet took root in the Netherlands, which is measurably below sea level and damper than hankies at family reunions.

Discovered in Turkish gardens of the 1500s by a devout diplomat from the Holy Roman Empire, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq sent tulip seeds home to Vienna. As their fame grew, demand increased and they traveled to English gardens only 20 or so years later. A gardener by the name of Clusius, who makes all the Dirt Divas of Boise look like interns or dilettantes, applied a level of patience and learned discipline known only to geeky researchers. He alternately developed and discovered blossoms beyond any known color, size, habit or relatively modest demeanor. These ever-more-glorious specimens, caused strangely enough by a capricious genetic aberration, commanded prices near to that of the legendary "Viceroy." A shipload of goods traded for but one of those vital globes and could be compared to the cost of today's most ostentatious Hummer. As fortunes were made and lost on the skills of breeders, the lust of plantaholics and the greed of investors, varieties multiplied wildly. For this, we express gratitude and awe each spring.

I teach classes now and then for the nursery or other local entities and have noted a significant increase in migration to our land of no hurricanes and so-far-minor earthquakes. With this influx of gardeners from other regions, I'm asked questions about matters I've lazily taken for granted. For example, if tulips, and some other bulbs we'll mention briefly, are the poster children of Easter motifs, why should we select and plant them now?

Much as summer bulbs, such as dahlias, canna lilies and gladiolas, must be spared the stresses of a cold winter, tulips have adapted behavior patterns suited to regions with climatic variations that signal alternating periods of vigor and rest. Many of the hardy perennials we leave in the ground over the winter have similar needs, but are better able to regulate their responses and resistance to temperature extremes. Spring bulbs need to develop the character that only shivering can inspire. You may read of ways to trick spring bulbs into believing that they snuggled down for winter, but can you imagine the annoyances of trying to do this in the vegetable crisper? Many conditions can doom the effort, and there's always the risk of being served something odd in a last-minute and desperate stir fry.

Now is the time to get spring-blooming bulbs in the ground, if not already. They may bloom if they've been planted even six weeks before they're expected to bloom, but gardeners kneeling in frozen leaves and rock-hard soil get too hasty to make attractive design choices. Trying to locate the bulb planter or read faded directions on the supplement package further threaten the outcome.

Daffodils, like tulips (the symbolic equivalent of chocolate bunny baskets), are available in a variety of sizes and colors and can be overwhelming to someone who can't recall what they planted where last year. Read through the descriptions on the packaging for information on height and anticipated bloom time so that arrangements can produce a rhythm of coordinated colors and chronological movement. Remember that hyacinth has a sweet fragrance and plant it by a door or gate, or that crocus near a south-facing wall will beat back the snow for an early demonstration of its hopeful nature.

Group masses so that color is bold and striking rather than weak and intermittent. Experiment with an added specimen for contrast or complements. Iberis, or candytuft, blooms about the same time and appears as a lace tablecloth upon which a dramatic splash of magenta, sunny yellow or claret may appear. Place them in a sunny and well-drained site at the suggested depth and give them a boost with bone meal or a richer blend of rose starter. Whether your memory kicks in and you actually anticipate the boisterous arrival of "Tequila Sunrise" or you're as pleasantly surprised as I was by ghost corn in Death Valley, the bliss hit may be just what we need after reading the paper, opening the mail or taking a call from a passive aggressive sister-in-law.

Linda Jarsky is a master gardener, certified arborist, landscape designer and marketing director for DG Nursery and Turf. Questions and comments may be directed to LJ at www.dgnursery.com.

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