Friday, January 29, 2016

Bulbs from Seed: Germination

Crocus sieberi
The year hasn't started until the first Crocus bloomed, so Happy New Year, everyone! The year's first flowers have appeared outside my work, a couple weeks ahead of my garden at home. The tiny flowers, smaller than a quarter, hover just a few inches above the ground. Along with other various species and cultivars (around 700 corms in all, I believe), they were planted haphazardly in a few areas in front of the front office. The goal, aside from bringing variety and interest to what was a depressing sight (the landscaping, not the business, though it depends who you ask) as well as bring in forage for bees and other pollinators. In my experience, the earliest crocuses are of little value to pollinators because they bloom during what is so often cool or rainy conditions at the tail end of Winter. They also appear to produce less pollen than the large Dutch crocus, Crocus vernus.

To be honest, the small Winter crocuses are easily missed and the majority of passerby are likely completely unaware of their presence. This in no way means I am regretful of their inclusion, on the contrary, their early blooming and bright color is the reward to those who are observant and wish to find such beauty in an otherwise industrial landscape that is my work (a cabinet factory).

Back at home, the crocuses are a few days behind the ones at work. I have experimented by planting them in a wide variety of locations. Some have been eaten by voles or, believe it or not, turkeys who dug them up. A few, seen here under Pinus ponderosa with a southern exposure in very rocky ground, and in a south facing raised bed on the hot side of the house, have remained untouched by herbivores. It is my wish that they will become settled enough to naturalize in the only areas they have not yet been eaten. But for now they are cheap enough that I continue to plant some every year in the "safe zones" although I fear the day will come that they will be discovered by a convention of voles or something else and be wiped out in a single grande feast.

It is always a treat, the crocuses, because they come in such a variety of forms and colors. To the uninitiated, they all appear similar (as they did to me years ago). Yet, there are many differences to observe from the venation on the petals to the reproductive structures which can be quite variable and are often characteristic to the species.

Tulipa saxatilis ssp bakeri 'Lilac Wonder'
Other leaves around the garden include this tulip cultivar I planted a few years ago. Since planting, I have seen a single bloom and nothing thereafter, nevermind there are nearly a dozen bulbs planted (dozens more since they've apparently divided quite a bit). The fact that the deer, voles, or turkeys haven't decimated them is nothing short of astonishing, and perhaps a year will come when they will be happy with the conditions and send up a few flowers.

Anemone coronaria leaves
The crown anemone, Anemone coronaria, is typically pretty dependable if the tubers don't get eaten by rodents. They sometimes send up their leaves before the conclusion of the previous year, persisting through frosts and freezes, to reliably bloom in Spring. I was able to collect seed from some of these last year, which hastily germinated, grew shortly, and disappeared. I hope the seedlings, and the mature tubers, persist.

Allium amplectens
These are the few remaining survivors of last years' Allium cleansing (by the tyrannical vole empire). Like the Crocus that have not [yet] been eaten, these are growing in the south bed, a raised bed on the hot side of the house. The peculiar thing is there are signs of voles around the bed, though they have not yet been enticed into the bed itself. I fear the continuation of this year will prove otherwise. But alas, I had collected seed from these last year, one or two have germinated, so all will not be lost if these should fall to the lower intestine of the vile rodents.

Dodecatheon hendersonii exposed crown
Dodecatheon hendersonii (or rather Primula hendersonii?) is beginning to appear around the yard. This is a native which, as you can see, grows from a fleshy crown. This crown was exposed naturally, though I cannon attest to what had caused the exposure. Each segment of the crown can be removed, preferably earlier than the growth seen here, and grown on to produce a new plant (a clone).

Piperia (Platanthera) leaf
A superficially similar leaf emerges nearby, though in close inspection is quite different from the leaves of Dodecatheon, seen below. Piperia (new name: Platanthera) is a native orchid which has a spike of tiny whitish flowers (probably Piperia transversa). Note the venation, oriented in straight parallel lines, and the slightly more acute tip. A second leaf will appear soon, and perhaps a third if the plant is mature. Peculiar, however, that the orchids in this part of the yard (growing under Pinus ponderosa) have not flowered since I have been here, while those growing in deeper shade under Quercus, Pseudotsuga, and Ceanothus flowered last year.

Dodecatheon hendersonii leaves
The leaves of Dodecatheon have a similar venation to Primula, which it is considered to be a part of [see Revision of Dodecatheon (Primulaceae) by James L. Reveal]. D. hendersonii has fleshy leaves with smooth margins, and appear almost all at once (unlike the Piperia whose leaves emerge singly). Leaves will persist for a month before flowers.

Luzula comosa
Originally I thought this to be a type of grass. In fact, it is a type of rush (Juncaceae). This species is unique, because it grows from a true bulb. I learned this by chance when I dug some up while digging a trench a few years ago. I was perplexed, and nobody I asked seemed to know about the bulb even though this species is seemingly well known. I was reassured when reading Vol. 1 of the Flora of Oregon and in the dichotomous key to Luzula the bulbous structure is what differentiates L. comosa from the rest.

It is known as Pacific woodrush, and flowers in Spring. I took some photos last year before the identity of this "grass" was known to me. I will take some photos when they bloom this year (hopefully with some better skill), but you can see last years' photos in the post, Mystery (mind you, these mystery plants have since been identified).

Narcissus leaves and bud
Moving on to some not-so-native plants [again], the Narcissus are appearing now. All on the narcissus I grow are hardy, most tent to me mid-season bloomers. I do have a few early blooming plants, unnamed varieties that came in what was literally a mixed bag. This single plant is the earliest I have, consistently blooming first every year. The latest to bloom, mass produced variants of Narcissus poeticus, have appeared to dwindle. Each year I learn more about which can fend for themselves, an invaluable trait of a plant for a father of two (second one is due in March!), husband, and one who has a full time job.

Narcissus second year bulbs
Like clockwork, the young bulbs I had shown last year in Bulbs from Seed have emerged. They say it takes seven years to see flowers. Stay tuned!

Narcissus seedlings
Along with the others, the seeds of Narcissus (sown last Autumn) are now germinating. They were planted one inch below the surface. There is some debate as to whether they do better surface sown or submerged, but this may be a case where the seeds don't care much how deep they're planted so long as the conditions are right.

Chlorogalum second year bulbs
More bulbs in their second year of growth, the Chlorogalum are a native bulb. I had collected seed of these not too far from my house. The bulbs contain high concentrations of saponins, and when diced and smashed can be lathered to be used as a sop or shampoo. Their range has been threatened by the prevalence of herbivores (or probably the lack of predators due to human encroachment).

Delphinium nuttallianum second year growth
Last year, the seeds of these had germinated, grew briefly, and then disappeared. I had taken them for compost. Nevertheless, here they are! Though not a bulb in any true sense of the word, they do exhibit the marked dormancy as seen in many hardy bulbs. Their high toxicity makes them a perfect candidate for my pest-ridden garden, and bees adore the flowers. These are shorter than the typical horticultural varieties, often growing under one foot in height.

Allium albopilosum seedlings
A number of bulb seeds are germinating in the seed pots. Allium is one of the easier genera to start from seed, in my experience. The seeds do well when cast on the surface of a roughened seed starting medium and topped with a very thin layer of grit, just enough to keep the seeds from floating. If grit is not used, rain can and will splash the lightweight seeds into adjacent pots, not good if you want to know what you are growing before the flowers appear.

I have received a few inquiries as to what medium I start seed in. I mix up a very basic soil mix, sometimes with bagged potting soil as a base, sometimes from scratch. I mix together roughly equal parts of the following:

  • Coarse builders sand
  • Sifted compost
  • Chicken grit
  • Reconstituted coconut coir
I mix it up in a wheelbarrow, starting with the coir as it tends to require overnight soaking. The exact proportions don't matter that much so long as the mix drains freely yet not too quickly as to dry out too quickly. It also depends on the time of year. In Winter, more sand and grit keep the mix from holding too much water. In Summer, a more retentive mix is a plus. Substituting perlite or bagged potting mix is OK, except I find perlite to be a drawback if too much is added as the mix floats in water and is hard to start seeds in. Never use perlite to top off the pot as it will float. I don't use vermiculite as the compost and coir do a great job on their own at retaining moisture. I prefer coir over peat because it is neutral. Peat lowers the pH, which could be a benefit if the plant prefers acid soil, though adding iron to the mix prevents leaf chlorosis (yellowing from lack of chlorophyll production) in acid-loving plants grown in alkaline conditions. Experiment!

Erythronium hendersonii seedlings
My first time growing Erythronium from seed, I am seeing signs of success! I love this genus, though I find the bulbs a bit expensive. Like Allium, they prefer a surface sowing. Taking a cue from Ian Young, I soaked the seeds overnight in a sandwich bag with a drop of dishsoap.

Erythronium revolutum seedling
Another Erythronium species emerging, I had traded some seed of the native E. hendersonii for a few additional species. This is very exciting for me, and I do hope that they start to hybridize. Of course, I want to see bumblebees (their main pollinator) visiting the flowers. Strangely, I have rarely witnessed any pollinators visit the flowers of E. hendersonii.

Dichelostemma capitatum seedlings
Closely related to Allium, Dichelostemma capitatum (the earliest to bloom of the Brodiaea-complex in this region) is seeing good germ rates from surface sowing. Like Allium, the seedlings emerge crooked, apparently folded up inside the seed, so are less able to push their way through too much soil/grit.

Iris chrysophylla seedlings
The native Iris chrysophylla continues to show good germ rates, little leaf spikes in the irid fashion coming up from the baby rhizome at the end of the radicle. These seeds would have probably benefited from a deeper sowing, but will probably do just fine being sown on the surface. The next major challenge for me, when and how to transplant. I think I will individuate them into their own pots at some point, perhaps at the end of the year, though I am not sure and would appreciate some guidance.

Wyethia seedling
This is actually pretty far from a bulb. This is, in fact, a native sunflower relative. In Spring, mature plants produce 3-4" wide bulky yellow composite flowers on two foot scapes. Depending on how many plants I end up with, they will be split between my garden and my work, both of which could benefit from more native plants.

Toxicoscordion fremontii seedlings
A near-native (from the CA coast), this is a death camas. I am unsure of these are sufficiently hardy for my harsh zone 7 garden. I say harsh because the heat and frost is more severe than the neighboring Grants Pass. If anyone has experience with this species, I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments.

Colchicum hungaricum, bulb offsets from the PBS bulb exchange
The three bulbs of this Spring-blooming Colchicum that I got from the Pacific Bulb Society Bulb Exchange have arrived... above the soil line. I am excited to acquire more Colchicum bulbs because of their apparent toxicity of all parts. Screw the voles, and the deer.

Crocus sieberi
More to come!


  1. your photography is such a delight as is all the info you share! Thank you so much!

  2. Here (in England) the traditional pattern is snowdrop-crocus-daffodil-tulip-hyacinth. So why no snowdrops? Some of the small Iris - reticulata, danfordae will appear in January and they're low cost, low trouble. This year it's been daffodils since 1st January - Rijnvelds Early Sensation and Scarlet Gem. The first crocus (chrysanthus) are appearing now.

    1. I have repeatedly attempted snowdrops with little success, a single flower in four years and then they just fade away. The state of the poor little bulbs in their bags in stores is a sorry sight, dried and shriveled. Perhaps I should soak them in water before planting?

      C. chrysanthus is soon to appear, as well as a few of the C. vernus hybrids.

  3. Love your photos! Do you also grow Aconites? One of my favorite places on the east coast to see all of these early-bloomers is Winterthur Garden's March Bank; a staged succession of tiny blooms that start in February and culminate in April. The woods are literally covered with color. I think you'll enjoy their photos on their blog - very similar to your own!

    1. Thank you, Carole. I don't have any winter aconites, unfortunately. I think I'll try some this year, though!

      And I have heard of Winterthus, looks like a nice place.


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