Skip the Dutch varieties, give Texas-native bulbs this holiday season
E.B. White (author of “Charlotte’s Web,” “The Trumpet of the Swan,” “Stuart Little” and many other wonderful stories and essays) wrote that his wife Katharine (author of “Onward and Upward in the Garden” and many other essays and articles) gathered together her bulbs in the autumn and placed them in the ground “calmly plotting the resurrection.” Indeed, spring bulbs are usually the first signs in the spring that life is returning to the garden. The early crocus, daffodils, snowdrops, jonquils and campernelles peek their perky little heads up before cold weather has gone on its way.
Many bulb flowers, now developed, produced and exported from Holland, are native to far-flung corners of the Earth. In fact, Holland is no bulb’s ancestral home. Wild dahlias come from Mexico. Amaryllis is native to South America. Freesias and Callas come from South Africa. And most of the species or “wild” lilies are from China, Japan and North America. It’s important to understand that many of the original wild forms of these famous flowers look nothing like the garden flowers that mostly Dutch hybridizers have created from them.
Over a thousand years ago, tulips grew wild in Persia, and near Kabul, the Great Mogul Baber counted 33 different species. The word tulip is thought to be a corruption of the Turkish word for turbans.
Wealthy people began to purchase tulip bulbs that were brought back from Turkey by Venetian merchants. In 1610, fashionable French ladies wore corsages of tulips, and many fabrics were decorated with tulip designs. In the 17th century, a small bed of tulips was valued at 15,000-20,000 francs. The bulbs became a currency, and their value was quoted like stocks and shares.
Tulipmania flourished between 1634-1637. Just like the California Gold Rush, people abandoned jobs, businesses, wives, homes and lovers to become tulip growers. The frenzy spread from France, through Europe to the Low Countries.
A Dutchman paid 36 bushels of wheat, 72 of rice, four oxen, 12 sheep, eight pigs, two barrels of wine and four of beer, two tons of butter, a 1,000 pounds of cheese, a bed, clothes and a silver cup for one Vice-Roi bulb.
The crazed population was obsessed beyond reason. Records show one buyer paying 12 acres of land, another buyer paying with his new carriage and 12 horses. The best story… after paying for a bulb with its weight in gold, the new owner heard that a cobbler possessed the same variety. He bought the cobbler’s bulb and crushed it, to increase the value of his first bulb.
Here in Texas and other parts of the country with warm winters, many of the Dutch-grown bulbs just don’t do very well. In Holland, the weather is cool, then cold, and very moist. The summers never reach 100, and the winters provide for many days below freezing. Obviously, Dutch climate is very different from the climate in Texas. Why, then, would we assume that bulbs grown in Holland would thrive here? (Mostly because the bulb salesmen tell us so!)
To do well, some bulbs, particularly many tulips, need a chilling time that our weather doesn’t provide. Furthermore, to get any life from them at all, you have to dig them, refrigerate them, then plant them again — year after year. Generally, Dutch bulbs will produce pretty flowers the first year they are planted as long as you chill them in the refrigerator before planting or buy bulbs that are pre-chilled, but that chilling is good for only one year. That’s why you need to dig and re-chill every fall.
Too much trouble! The best thing I know to do about bulbs is to plant the antique varieties that have been growing in our climate for years and are adapted to warm winters and short springs. These bulbs will bloom year after year, multiply to create more bulbs and survive our quirky climate. They might not bloom every year, but most will repeat. In addition, they have the distinction of having been around for a long time and therefore deserve a little respect.
Like all heirloom and antique flowers, antique bulbs are often less showy, more fragrant, less trouble and more soul-satisfying that big, gaudy hybrids. The narcissus smell wonderful and their nodding heads brighten any winter garden. The snowdrops bloom before anything else and look exactly like delicate little white bells with a tiny green dot gracing every scallop. You could not invent a more charming flower if you tried, and these little beauties are tough as nails. They come back year after year, get bigger and better every year and bloom when nothing else is blooming. Many people naturalize them in the yard and just mow them down in the summer.
Antique bulbs are often found in old, abandoned gardens, graveyards and farmsteads — just as antique roses are. A local favorite is the oxblood lily, also known as “chilly lily” and “outhouse lily.” These bright-red flowers are as fancy and elaborate as you’d wish a flower to be. They pop up in the fall and produce beautiful blossoms on stately stems, then when the flower is finished, the plant produces a nice clump of leaves to give a little color to the winter garden. Another favorite are the rain lilies that come in a variety of colors. They wait patiently underground until a good rain, then pop up into brilliant blooms. Spider lilies are big and showy and carefree.
Many of the large and beautiful crinum lilies will grow enthusiastically in Texas. Although they bloom more generously when there is plentiful rain, they will survive drought and prosper when the conditions are right without much care at all. You can find crinums growing along the road and in cemeteries where they receive no care at all.
Bulbs can be planted in both the spring and fall. Bulbs planted in the fall are among the earliest plants to flower in the spring. Paperwhites are sometimes in full bloom in December in Central Texas and crocus, grape hyacinth, snowdrops and other early bloomers are bringing cheer long before the last frost clears the way for other flowers.
We are lucky that heirloom bulbs for Texas are available in local nurseries and online, and Chris Wiesinger of Tyler has even written a book about them, “The Bulb Hunter.” So as you consider gifts for yourself or gardening friends, consider the heirloom bulbs. They are economical and luxurious at the same time and will be a reminder each year of your good choice.
Shop local at Austin’s independent business districts this Saturday
The Austin Independent Business Alliance’s IBIZ districts are encouraging folks to shop local this Saturday by having stores offer special deals. In the Lo-Burn district (Burnet Road from 44th Street to North Loop), find 50 percent off deals at Second Time Around and find specials at Gypsies Antiques and Assistant League Thrift House. In the North Drag district (Guadalupe Street from 29th Street to 32nd Street), shop Malvern Books and get a $10 gift card for spending $50. I Luv Vintage has 10 percent off items $50 or more. Find 20 percent off at Revival Vintage and Breakaway Records in the North Loop district (North Loop from Avenue H to Chesterfield Avenue). In the South First district (the river to Oltorf Street), find 10 percent off at Bloomers and Frocks, Flashback Vintage and jewelry at Morning Start Trading Company. Find more deals at ibuyaustin.com.
Shop the holiday shopping party at Away Spa
Away Spa at W Austin is hosting its annual holiday party 6-9 p.m. Thursday. The event launches its 12 Days of Glowing, which offers a different one-day-only discount on treatments each day.
During the party get complimentary treatments, shop pop-up shops from local brands and try free refreshments. RSVP at whotelaustin.com/glow.
Think spa specials for the holidays from Hiatus
Hiatus Spa + Retreat has spa specials that might make a relaxing treat for someone you love. Choose from this holiday specials:
The Merry & Bright: Pick two essential services for $179.
The Mistletoe Kiss: Enjoy a monthly retreat then a facial for $319.
The Peace, Love, & Joy*: You get a massage, facial and a mani-pedi in one $269 package.
Let It Glow! Let It Glow! Let It Glow!: Try this body glow treatment, massage and facial for $239.
The Warm & Cozy: A hot stone massage gets paired with a mani-pedi for $219.
Find Hiatus at 1611 W. Fifth St., Suite 155. hiatusspa.com.
ByGeorge offers holiday events from style tips to jewelry designs
ByGeorge is offer many special events this month. Learn how to make winter wreaths with style blogger Camille Styles and florist Samantha Jensen 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 3 at the 524 N. Lamar Blvd. store. Celebrate the launch of “Domino: Your Guide to a Stylish Home” with Domino editor Jessica Romm Perez and pick up some gift-wrapping tips 6-8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the North Lamar Boulevard store.
Candle company Astier de Villatte launches its new line of Paris-inspired candles 4-7 p.m. Dec. 7 at the 1400 S. Congress Ave. location. Local jewelry designer Kate Caplener will be at the North Lamar Boulevard store to show her newest pieces in her Vada Jewelry line, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 15. bygeorgeaustin.com
Celebrate local designers at Origin Designer Market
More than 30 designers and makers will set up shop at Origin Designer market on Dec. 17. It’s from the minds behind local design brands Son of a Sailor, Little Minnow, Fail and Rhyno Clayworks. Find it all at Browning Hangar at Mueller, 4550 Mueller Blvd. Shop the market from 10-5 p.m.