One thing particularly stands out after many years of
working with and appreciating plants: Everything
about them is logical. We may be far from
understanding exactly what takes place inside them,
but I can tell you that what I have observed appears to
occur logically and in sequence. Books such as this are
seldom read from cover to cover as one would read a
novel. It is hoped readers will find straightforward
answers to their questions about bulbous plants here. I
have tried to follow a logical sequence in putting this
book together, and questions that may arise as a result
of reading one section are answered in the next. If a
reader thinks an answer is illogical, I would think that
answer incorrect; I hope that would never be the case
One might ask, "Why another book on bulbs?"
There are indeed many good books on these fascinating
plants. In my own two-volume work, I address bulbs
in an academic rather than scientific way, providing
information I think essential to the understanding of
these plants, and covering the wide range of genera that
comprise "bulbs," in the broad sense of the word.
However, I would be the first to admit that the
twovolume work omitted many personal observations,
comments and opinions. I have been connected with
the profession of horticulture since the 1940s, and there
was much I was not able to set forth in such a work.
John E. Bryan on Bulbs approaches the subject in a
personal way. Gardening should reflect what one likes,
rather than another person's taste.
Bulbs have nearly always been a part of my life. I
distinctly recollect the "onion men," as we called them,
walking through the streets of my hometown of
Plymouth, England. Hanging from the ends of stout
sticks balanced on their shoulders were plaited strings
of onions. Housewives purchased the onions, and the
strings would grow shorter as the onion sellers
progressed. My mother would remark that a certain
man's onions surely were good because his strings were
shorter. For the most part these men came from
France, and wore colorful red scarves around their
necks. The onions glistened in the sun with shiny, light
brown coats, and all of them, I seem to remember,
were of equal size.
Other recollections of bulbs (I must admit I did
not know them as bulbs) were of the leeks certain
Welsh regiments stuck in their hats on particular days;
this remains a tradition today.
The next bulb I remember is the English bluebell.
In spring the woods are filled with them. We would
pick them for our mothers, but what a waste of time
they just do not make good cut flowers. I remember
being told it harms the bulb if the flowers are pulled.
You were supposed to cut the stems; a length of 24 or
more inches, about half of which is white because it
grows underground, indicates just how deep these
bulbs had grown into the soil. I knew nothing about
contractile roots when I was picking bluebells, and I
never gave a thought as to how the bulbs reached that
depth when they started out as seed on the surface.
Hyacinthoides non-ecripta is a long name for the lovely English bluebell that carpets many woodland areas in springtime. These plants multiply quickly, but such
beauty can never be a pest.
I became an indentured apprentice to a
nurseryman in South Devon by the name of R. T.
May, and for the princely sum of 10 shillings, I
worked 48 hours a week. In those days we started
work on time, and we worked hard, and I regard such
practical experience as an essential ingredient of a
sound career in horticulture. There is no good
substitute for "handson" experience.
Forcing bulbs for the market is an operation that
takes quite a lot of time. Wooden crates would arrive
for the R. T. May nursery from Holland, and inside
we would find paper sacks filled with the bulbs, with
wood shavings used as packing material. Just after the
war, bulbs were in short supply, and we handled them
with great care.
At Somerset Agricultural College, the use of bulbs
in the garden-simple elements of designwas just one
aspect of bulb culture that occupied my time. Just how
large an industry bulb culture is started to become
apparent to me then. Anemone pulsatilla, A, coronaria, A.
nemorosa, various ornamental onions such as Allium molt'
and A. karataviense, Cyclamen species, dahlias, gladiolas,
lilies, freesias and crown imperials were to be found in
the collections grown. Bulbs' lovely forms and colors,
the different shapes and textures, gave me much food for thought and, I think,
formed a solid foundation of interest in these miracles
of nature. To hold in your hand the dry tubers of
anemones and then plant them and see, in a
comparatively short space of time, the appearance of
fernlike foliage, then dowers of wonderful color, is still
a miracle to me.
I worked with bulbs at the Parks Department of
the city of Bournemouth; as a student at the Royal
Botanic Garden, Edinburgh; and during my graduate
studies at the Royal Horticultural Society's Garden at
Wisley. I can remember, while at Wisley, seeing lilies
produced at the Oregon Bulb Farms planted among
rhododendrons and azaleas, and noting how well they
were suited for such areas. No matter how well known
and busy my mentors and teachers were, they took
time to talk with me, something I have never forgotten.
So, even when I am feeling rather rushed and have
much to do, I try to find time for those to whom I may
be of some help, remembering how generous others
were m sharing their experience with me.
When I was awarded the Gardeners Scholarship
in 1955, I chose to study in Holland, even though I
wasn't considering a career in the bulb industry. I
wanted to see more of this country so
intimately connected with bulbs and with other sectors
of the nursery business. During my last year of studies,
I had the good fortune to work in Paris. (For the
education of any person, a sojourn in Paris is
recommended! Even on a student's stipend it is a fun
city.) I was very fortunate to have an introduction to
that great landscape architect Russell Page, and indeed
had the pleasure of working with him during my entire
stay in France. Many an instructive hour was spent
with him, and he heightened my interest in bulbs.
After my years in France, I left Europe to settle
in the United States. Jan de Graaff offered me a
position in his prestigious firm, the Oregon Bulb
Farms. Now, occupied with bulbs every day, I found
myself truly "hooked."
Jan de Graaff pioneered the cultivation of lilies.
With Earl Hornback, Harold Comber and later Ed
McRae, de Graaff brought one hybrid lily after
another into the gardening world. His Mid Century
Hybrids opened the floodgates, and today the modern
hybrids available in many colors in the many forms of
the Asiatic Hybrids are entirely due to the original
work he accomplished in Gresham, Oregon. From
those days I especially recall the thrill of examining
new hybrids flowering for the first time, and the
ticklish work of naming new introductions. After I
left the farms of de Graaff, I spent several years at the
Strybing Arboretum as director. As the arboretum was
part of the Parks Department of the City and County
of San Francisco (and thus short of funds) I made use
of my contacts to obtain many thousands of bulbs. We
conducted experiments seemingly without end, and
sent information back to Holland, where it was used
to prepare booklets for gardeners growing bulbs in
Jan de Graaff and the author. One of my great memories is working with Jan de Graaff. In summer we would select, from thousands of seedlings, plants we considered worthy of being
named. (Photo courtesy of Herman V. Wall.)
In the late seventies I had the opportunity to visit
South Africa. If I had loved bulbs before, I was
enraptured after seeing such genera as
Freesia, Agapanthus, Dierama, Dieted, Ornithogalum,
Anapalina, Babiana, Bulbine, Clivia, Crinum, Drimia,
Gloriosa, Haemanthus, Ixia, Lachenalia, Nerine and Tritonia,
to name but a few, growing in their native habitats.
There is undoubted beauty in the selections and
hybrids of genera we grow in our gardens. But the
purity of form and subtle colors of plants in the wild,
when growing well, cannot be surpassed. Even after
many trips to this part of the world, I am still thrilled
by bulbs growing in the wild. One of my
granddaughters has, as her middle name, Anapalina.
I am so pleased that I am encouraged by the
publishers to make this book a personal one, to share
with readers thoughts long held but not recorded
elsewhere. As you read this book, do remember that
the opinions expressed are mine, and that the
selections of genera, species and cultivars are a
reflection of my interests. After such a rich and
pleasant life with these, my favorite plants, I hoped I
might have a few helpful points to pass on to the
reader. If I accomplish this, I will be glad. If I do not, I
am nonetheless happy to again set pen to paper to
write about bulbs!
This yellow Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis `Lutea') is magnificent in springtime, bold and clean looking, long lasting and a
good companion for other spring-flowering bulbs.