Friday, October 30, 2009

Bluebells Seem Like Fairy Gifts

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
                                                                       The Bluebell,
Anne Bronte

It was early spring and I was walking through a wood near Munich.  Gray clouds had induced in me a pensive mood, when I came upon a clump of bluebells.  The forest at once became enchanted.  In the words of Bronte, they "seemed like fairy gifts."  Such was my first experience with these delightful plants.

Well, I thought they were bluebells.  They could have been squill.  They are very much alike, and the names are practically synonymous.  Let me explain.

Plants are grouped together because of similarity or affinity.  But sometimes, upon closer examination, they are set apart because of certain differences.  This is the case with bluebells and squill.

Most squill are properly of the genus, Scilla, a member of the Hyacinthaceae family.  The genus consists of about 90 species native to Europe and parts of Asia where they grow in woodlands and meadows.  The flowers are somewhat bell-like or star-like and are found in shades ranging from blue or pink to nearly white.  Most bloom in spring, though some bloom in fall.  Plant size ranges from under 6" to 12".  The name, Scilla (pronounced "SILL-uh"), is thought to have come from a Greek word meaning "to excite."  They certainly do.

Another squill, formerly of the genus Scilla, has been set apart into its own genus, Puschkinia.  This, too, is in the Hyacinthaceae family.  Pronounced "push-KIN-ee-uh", it is named for Count Apollo Mussin-Puschkin, an 18th Century Russian chemist and plant collector.  The genus consists of two species that are native to Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.  Flowers are very similar to scilla in colors ranging from pale blue to white.  Plant size ranges from under 6" to 12".

Hyacinthoides is another related genus - so related in fact that it also used to be included among the Scilla.  But taxonomists, doing what they do best, separated it from the others.  Hyacinthoides (pronounced "hi-ah-sin-THOY-deez") means "resembles hyacinth", and by golly it does.  No surprise that it is also in the Hyacinthaceae family.  These are the true bluebells, though colors actually range from blue or pink to white.  Plant size ranges from 6" to 18".  Bluebells, sometimes called Wood Hyacinths, are native from the Iberian peninsula, across south central Europe and northward to Britain.  Each species has its own range.

Bluebells and squill require very little maintenance.  They are wonderful for bulb gardens, perennial gardens, container gardens as well as for naturalizing in meadows, around the margins of lawns, and in woodlands.

Planting of squill and bluebells begins in fall.  As always, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office before planting.  They will send it to a lab for analysis and recommendations.  Expect to pay a nominal fee.  If you don't understand the report, ask the County Agent to interpret it for you.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  A good all-around practice for bulbs and such is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Repeat the application when growth appears, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

After blooming, be sure to let the leaves yellow and die before cutting them.  Leaving them alone will allow the bulbs to build up food reserves for a glorious show the next year.

Following are specific information and planting tips for some of the most popular species.

Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) - Flowers appear in late spring to early summer.  Thrives in USDA climate zones 4 to 8.  Prefers average garden soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 6.5.  Plant in light shade to full shade.  Plant bulbs 4" deep and 4" apart.  Water needs are average.  They are somewhat drought tolerant; avoid over-watering.  The plants are toxic to mammals, so are deer and rodent resistant.

Striped Squill (Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica) -  Flowers appear in late winter to early spring. Thrives in USDA climate zones 3 to 8 or 9.  Prefers average, well-drained garden soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Plant bulbs 2" to 5" deep and 3" to 6" apart.  The plants are toxic to mammals, so are deer and rodent resistant.

Early or White Squill (Scilla mischtschenkoana or S. tubergeniana) - Flowers appear in late winter to early spring.  Thrives in USDA climate zones 4 to 8.  Prefers average garden soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.8.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Plant bulbs 4" deep and 4" apart.  Soil should be consistently moist, so avoid allowing it to try out.  The plants are toxic to mammals, so are deer and rodent resistant.

Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) - Flowers appear in late winter to early spring.  Thrives in USDA climate zones 2 to 8.  Prefers average garden soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.8.  Plant in full sun to partial shade.  Plant bulbs 4" deep and 4" apart.  Soil should be consistently moist, so avoid allowing it to try out.  The plants are toxic to mammals, so are deer and rodent resistant.

No matter which you choose, you'll be delighted with these elegant, enchanting "fairy gifts."

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