Field of Science

Naturally naturalized bulb

In the far dim wilderness recesses of our gardens, our property abuts properties on both the east and west in places where no human foot has tread for decades.  The Phactor has been thinking of contacting the discovery channel when exploring back there.  In such places the surviving plants are generally weeds or cultivars that have a tremendous ability to naturalize, and so late in April a few years back, a patch of flowers appeared in a quite shady area of long-time neglect, and they looked great, a shade-loving (or at least tolerating) plant that is attractive in flower and clearly requiring little care or maintenance.  What's not to like, so what is it?  Now that poses an interesting problem.  Unless it capable of escaping cultivation completely, it will not be in field guides that stick to natives or escaped, naturalized exotics. Since the Phactor had never seen it before, it was not one of these.  It was clearly a liliaceous (OK, someone did scale the fence to get a closer look.  So what?), spring bulb of some sort, but an unfamiliar one.  That does not narrow the possibilities very much, and it took some time for a positive ID to be made by chance while thumbing through one of those big bulb catalogs.  A more definitive check with encyclopedic reference books (that do not have ID keys!) the following spring confirmed that this was Ornithagolum nutans, sometimes called silver bells.  Our lawn and gardens are littered sparingly with the more common species O. umbellatum, star of Bethlehem, which is a tad invasive, if not a down right pest if you are one of those monocultures of grass types.  However, these silver bells showed no sign of being so invasive having stayed in one patch for decades, so a few dozen bulbs were purchased and planted in patches here  and there around some of the shadier recesses of our gardens.  This spring the new silver bells look quite nice, flowering after the earlier bulbs, although a bit understated with a perianth more of a pale green-white color than the bright white of umbellatum, and borne laterally on a taller raceme rather than in a flat topped, pseudo-umbel.  Still best to plant in a cluster to have a visual impression of any impact.  

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