Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hunt For The Tiger Flower

Collectors of exotic plants should hunt for the Tiger Flower.  It belongs to the genus Tigridia (pronounced ty-GRID-ee-ah), which means like a tiger.  The name was derived from the Aztec, ocelo-xóchitl (roughly pronounced o-cel-o tsO-chi-tl, the tl sounding like a click somewhere between my tongue and cheek, but I can't explain it), meaning tiger flower.  The tiger in mind was certainly not the Asian tiger, and probably not the ocelot, as one might expect from the name, but the jaguar. Jaguars are spotted, and so are Tigridia flowers, usually in the center with outer colors ranging from cream and yellow to pink and red.

Tigridia includes around thirty species native to the western hemisphere from Mexico southward.  The genus was discovered by Europeans by the 18th century. Of course, earlier residents knew about the plants already.

Tigridia is a member of the Iridaceae family, along with Belamcanda, Crocosmia, Iris, Sparaxis, and such.  The sword-like foliage and the flower arrangement on the stems are obvious hints. T. pavonia (pronounced pav-ON-ee-ah) is the most readily available because it is very adaptable and showy.

T. pavonia was named for the Spanish botanist, José Antonio Pavón Jiménez of Caceras (1754-1844), who, along with Hipólito Ruiz López of Burgos (1754-1816) and French botanist Joseph Dombey (1742-1794), accompanied an expedition commissioned by Carlos III to explore Peru and Chile. It was a huge eleven-year commitment (1777-1788) for those young men to embark upon. In fact, Pavón was enlisted before he had completed his academic studies. I suppose the lure of adventure called. Following their exploration, Pavón and Ruiz published Flora Peruviana et Chilensis.

Dombey left the expedition in 1784 over disagreements with Hipólito, and took with him valuable information about Cinchona, the source of quinine treatment for malaria. In other words, it appears that he left the expedition to the mercy of mosquitos while taking the medicine with him. Ironically, Dombey's work, Péruvienne Flore, was published posthumously.

Interestingly, Tigridia may have been discovered by Europeans before the Pavón-Ruiz expedition.  The 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes includes a description of the ‘floure of Tygris’.  I've not been able to locate a description of it in the 1597 edition, but I haven't scanned all 1500 pages.  Apparently, Gerard (1545-1612) or one of the later contributors to the Herball thought the report about the plant to be false.

Two bulbous Plants, generally holden for feigned and adulterine. ... The second feigned picture hath been taken of the Discoverer and others of late time, to be a kind of Dragons not sure by any that have written thereof ... The root, saith my Author, is bulbous or Onion fashion, outwardly black, from which spring up long leaves, sharp pointed, narrow, and of a fresh green colour: in the middest of which leaves rise up naked or bare stalks, at the top whereof groweth a pleasant yellow floure, stained with many small red spots here and there confusedly cast abroad: and in the middest of the floure thrusteth forth a long red tongue or style, which in time groweth to be the cod or seed-vessel, crooked or wreathed, wherein is the seed. The vertues and temperature are not to be spoken of, considering that we assuredly persuade our selves that there are no such plants, but meere fictions and devices, as we terme them, to give his friend a gudgeon.

A gudgeon is a coarse fish, sometimes a pest, in Europe.  To give a gudgeon was to play a trick, so the 'floure of Tygris' was considered to be someone's attempt at a joke.  But the description of Tigridia is so spot-on that one can only surmise someone actually knew about it over 150 years before the Pavón-Ruiz expedition.

By the way, Gerard supervised the London gardens of William Cecil (1521-1598), chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, was an ancestor of William Amherst Vanderbilt Cecil, present operator of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC.  But that's another story.

Pavón, Ruiz, Dombey and explorers before them weren't looking for pretty flowers.  They were looking for valuable plants.  Tigridia is still worth further study.

Indigenous people of South America ate the boiled bulbs and roots.  Cooked, they are said to taste like chestnuts.  Tigridia has been used medicinally to reduce fever, promote conception, and is said to be "good for the breast."  Furthermore, the plants may have had some ceremonial significance in Aztec culture.

Tigridia adds plenty of color to the garden.  You can plant Tigridia bulbs in spring directly in the ground or in containers.  Mix them amongst other perennials or annuals in free-form groupings.  The individual flowers open in the morning and close by late afternoon, so don't plan on cutting them.  However, the stems can produce flowers from spring to mid-summer, so you may enjoy a long-lasting show.

Tigridia pavonia is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 8 through 11, where they can be treated as perennials.  Space 3 inches to 6 inches apart and about 4 inches deep in full sun to partial shade in average, moist but well-drained garden soil.  Gardeners in colder climates can lift them in the fall and store them over winter in vermiculite or peat in a dry place where temperature can be maintained between 35 degrees and 40 degrees F.

Ideal pH for Tigridia ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.  Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  Follow the instructions.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If you prefer to skip the soil test, a fine all-around practice for spring-flowering bulbs 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 shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Tigridia not only adds color and texture to the garden, but historic and cultural interest, as well.  Gerard's Herball considered it too good to be true.  Certainly you should add the Tiger Flower to your collection.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

FAQ: Is it always necessary to till the soil before planting?

Q. Is it always necessary to till the soil before planting?

A. Though I recommend it as a first step, it is not always necessary. If your soil has never been worked, it is probably compacted and will need tilling. But if your garden soil is friable, tilling should not be necessary. If you are adding soil amendments such as fertilizer, compost, greensand, sulphur or pelletized lime, tilling can help to incorporate them thoroughly into the soil.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cheerful Harlequin Flowers

Cheerful Harlequin Flowers put on a colorful show in any garden.  Their star-shaped flowers in a rainbow of bright colors are produced on 12 to 18 inch long stems in mid-spring to early summer.

The genus, Sparaxis (pronounced spa-RAKS-iss), includes about fifteen species native to the Cape Province of South Africa.  The name refers to the flower bracts which appear to be torn.  Sparaxis has been known at least since the 1800s, though a new species, Sparaxis maculosa, was discovered as late as 1988.  Sparaxis is a member of the Iridaceae, along with Ixia, another South African genus.  In fact, Ixia and Sparaxis have sometimes been confused.  Among their most obvious shared characteristics are corms, sword-like foliage and the flower arrangement on the stems. S. tricolor is the most readily available, though collections of mixed species are often offered for sale.

Depending on the species, flower centers have black centers, yellow centers, or a combination of both.  The leaves are very attractive, too, adding vertical interest to the garden.  You can plant them in spring anywhere directly in the ground or in containers.  If allowed to go to seed, sparaxis germinates readily and will produce lots of new plants.  The corms produce offshoots which can be divided during dormancy and replanted for a greater show the following year.

Sparaxis adds plenty of color to the garden.  Mix the corms amongst other perennials or annuals in free-form groupings.  They're perfect for bulb gardens and rock gardens, too.  Because the cut flowers are long-lasting, you'll want plenty of them in your cutting garden.  Sparaxis is drought-tolerant, too, so those who live in drought-prone zones or must limit their water use will love them.  This is definitely one to add to your list of plants for xeriscaping.

Sparaxis is cold hardy in USDA climate zones 9 through 11, but the corms are so inexpensive that gardeners in colder zones treat them as annuals. Space 6 inches to 12 inches apart and about 1-1/2 inches to 3 inches deep in full sun to partial shade in average, well-drained garden soil.  Field studies at the Institute of Ornamental Plants and Architecture of Landscape, Agricultural University of Lublin, Poland between 2000 and 2003 reported that, in general, early planting at 1-1/2 inches depth resulted in more flower spikes with more flowers per spike.  So my advice to you is to get them in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked.

Ideal pH for sparaxis ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.  Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  Follow the instructions.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 8" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If you prefer to skip the soil test, a fine all-around practice for spring-flowering bulbs 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 shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

When fall approaches and plants become dormant, gardeners in cooler climates can dig the corms and store them over winter.  To do so, remove dried foliage, brush soil from the corms, pack them in ground sphagnum or dry sawdust, and store them in a dark, well-ventilated area with a temperature range of 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Planted liberally, Sparaxis will make a wonderful show in your spring to summer garden. You'll be delighted with this beautiful South African native.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Night Fragrance of Exotic Tuberose

Night heightens the senses and deepens emotions.  Longings and impressions are not so arresting in the light of day.  On summer nights, when windows are opened and hearts yearn, the night fragrance of tuberose ignites passions around the world.

The botanical name is Polianthes tuberosa (pronounced polly-AN-these toober-OHS-ah).  Polianthes means "gray flower".  Tuberosa refers to the tuberous root structure.

Polianthes is in the Agavaceae family, and is believed to be native to Mexico.  You'll recognize the family resemblance in foliage and flower.  Plant size is about 24 inches.  Flower color is almost white.  Bloom season is from mid-summer to fall, depending upon the region where it is grown.

Agaves are the sources of other intoxications such as pulque, mezcal and tequila.  Aztecs called polianthes, Omixochitl (pronounced oh me' zu che' tl), meaning "bone flower", referring to the bloom color.

In Iran it is known as Gole Maryam or Jane Maryan and woven into the music of love longing.

In Hindi, it is Rajnigandha.  Though the rajnigandha story is a bit different, the desire of the heart is ever present.

Indonesians know it as bunga sedap malam.  Chinese call it WanXiangYu.  No matter the language, the translation is the same: Night Fragrance.

According to legends spread abroad, young girls from Europe to Asia were warned that smelling the perfumed air might induce romantic moods.  Rather than taking care, I expect that ladies slept next to open windows dreaming of love.

Tuberose blossoms are often mingled in wedding bouquets.  Parts of the flowers are popular ingredients in perfume.

That Polianthes is probably native to Mexico but deeply embedded in the psyche of people around the world begs the question, How did it come to pass?

Persia (Iran) and India have been allies, often of the same blood, perhaps as far back as 2000 BC.  There is strong evidence that Muslim traders traveled to Indonesia as early as the 8th century AD.  So it doesn't require a stretch to speculate trade with Mayans or Aztecs even before the Spanish Conquistadors.  Since the Iberian peninsula was home to Christians and mudejar following the Reconquest of Spain, there should be no doubt that tuberoses were carried around the world after the 15th century.  It has been a small orb after all.

Tuberoses are perfect for containers, bulb gardens, perennial borders, fragrance gardens and cutting gardens.  They thrive in USDA climate zones 8 through 10. Gardeners in colder climates may grow them in containers, protecting them over winter.  Plant outdoors in full sun to partial shade.  Rich garden soil that is well-drained and with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.8 is fine.  For container growing, use a good grade of well-drained, peat-based potting soil.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  The service usually provides collection bags.  For the most basic recommendations, you may be charged a nominal fee.  For more information such as micro-nutrient and organic content you may be charged more.  Their recommendations are well worth it.

Planting usually begins in spring, though fall planting is possible in warmest climates.  Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6 inches deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 8 inches deep.
Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  A fine all-around practice for Spring-flowering bulbs 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 shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

The tubers should be planted no deeper than 3 inches.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  Recommended plant spacing is 6 inches to 12 inches.

Plant tuberose in your garden this spring, then open your windows for gentle breezes to perfume your home.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

FAQ: Can you suggest a juniper ground cover that will not be overcome by grasses and weeds? When should we plant?

Q.  We have a large (approximately 100 ft x 40 ft) sunny hillside  of red clay in north Georgia and would like to plant an economical, fast-spreading juniper as a ground cover that will not be overcome by wild grasses and weeds.  What would you suggest?  Should we plant now or next spring?

A.  In all honesty, there is not a ground cover juniper that can not be overcome by wild grasses and weeds.  Ground covers suppress weeds but don't eliminate them entirely. The best you can do is to kill weeds and grasses when planting, plant your ground covers in clean soil, apply 3" or 4" of mulch (measure the depth after the mulch has settled) or a pre-emergent herbicide, and maintain a weed-free environment until the junipers have matured.  If you apply a pre-emergent herbicide, it will have to be re-applied every few weeks to maintain an effective barrier.  Make sure the chemical is labeled for use with junipers.  Follow all label directions.  You must also prevent weeds from encroaching from outside the planting bed. Since you are planting on a hillside, you should use a straw mulch.  Bark or wood chips will wash down the slope.

Fall is an excellent time for planting.  Though you won't see much top-growth over winter, the roots will be establishing themselves.  This will give you a jump on spring.

Juniperus conferta 'Blue Pacific' and J. horizontalis 'Wiltonii' (also known as 'Blue Rug') are fast-growing, economical ground cover junipers.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Herbal Oils Help To Preserve The Bounty Of Your Garden

What do you do when you have more herbs to harvest in your garden than you can deal with?  You can eat a lot, dry them, freeze them or make herbal oils.  Each of those present you with more options, but let's think about herbal oils.

I've tried a few, and so have you.  They might have been purchased, received as gifts, or rubbed on by your masseuse.  I can't remember a single one that wasn't delightful.  The not-so-secret secret is that you can make them yourself.  Herbal oils help to preserve the bounty of your garden, are wonderful for cooking, easy to make, attractive on the shelf, and make great gifts.

There are a gazillion-willion possible ingredients and uses for herbal oils.  I can't begin to present specific recipes and applications for you to try, so I'll stick to the basics.  For the sake of simplicity, let's make cayenne pepper oil.

You'll need a sterilized bottle and cap or stopper, dried red peppers that are small enough to fit through the bottle-neck, and oil.  As I mentioned in my article, Pesto Is The Solution..., nothing preserves the essence of fresh herbs like olive oil.  But olive oil isn't the best oil for every occasion.  In fact, lighter oils and those with less pronounced flavor tend to highlight the taste of the herbs.  For sake of economy and usefulness, start with canola oil.  It's healthy and versatile.

Here are the steps:
  • Gather a few small dried red peppers.  Six or eight will do.  If you don't have any on hand, you can purchase some from your local grocery store.  You'll find them among the spices or in the Mexican food section.
  • Sterilize your bottle.  After sterilizing, let them drain and dry. 
  • Place the peppers on a cutting board and whack them a little bit to bruise them.  I use a small meat tenderizing hammer.  Just break the skin; don't pound them to pieces.
  • Stuff the peppers in the bottle.
  • Heat the oil in a small stainless steel saucepan on low temperature until it's a little warm.
  • Pour the oil into the bottle.
  • Let the contents cool.
  • Close the bottle tightly with a lid or cork.
  • Set the bottle aside in a cool place away from light for about a week. 
  • Use it.
You may be asking, "How shall I use this pepper oil?"  The answer is that you should use it as you would for any recipe that requires some oil and hot pepper.  You can also use it for vinaigrettes with a touch of heat.

You may be asking, "How long will this oil last?"  Your homemade oil won't last as long as commercially processed herbal oils.  It should be good for a couple of months.  If you remove the peppers from the oil, it will last longer.  The reason is that the peppers, though dried, still contain a little water. If the water weren't there, your peppers would be dust or less.  Water harbors life-giving fluid for little creatures that can spoil your oil.  But if you remove the peppers from the oil, your bottle won't look so pretty.  "What to do?"  Use it or refrigerate it.  If you have trouble using a larger bottle of oil, make your herbal oils in smaller batches and store in smaller bottles.

There are many different oils to choose from.  Canola, peanut, safflower and sunflower are good choices.  Remember what I said before about lighter-tasting oils highlighting herbal flavors.

Popular herbs and spices for oil infusions include basil, bay, cayenne, chives, cilantro, dill, garlic, mint, marjoram, oregano, peppercorn, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme.  For massage oils, consider eucalyptus, lavender and dried citrus peels.  Experiment with different combinations.  You'll have great fun.

Herbal oils make lovely gifts.  Attractive bottles enhance the appearance.  You can also decorate the bottles by dipping the necks in colored wax, applying descriptive labels in calligraphy, wrapping with attractive fabric, tying with ribbon or raffia.  A gift card including a suggested recipe will be appreciated.  The recipients may think their gifts are too beautiful to use, but remind them that the herbal oil won't last forever.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pesto Is The Solution To A Bumper Crop of Basil

Last fall, our friend, Donna McKenna, dropped off a couple of large plastic garbage bags filled with fresh basil plants.  Someone had given more of their bumper crop than they could use themselves.  They were pulling up the rest.  Donna used as much as she could, sold some at the local farmers' market, and still had bushels of basil.

Even though we grow our own herbs, we were glad to get her leftovers.  But we couldn't possibly use so much basil at once, so I set about making lots of pesto.  I reasoned that it would be a better alternative than freezing or drying the raw herb.  Nothing preserves the flavor of fresh herbs like olive oil.

If you are growing basil in your garden, try my recipe for pesto with a Southern twist:
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed tightly
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (authentic Italian pesto contains pine nuts)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Equipment: A food processor or blender.  If using a blender, make sure the lid has an opening on top so ingredients can be added without removing the entire lid.


Put the basil and nuts in the blender, make sure the lid is secure, and give the machine a few short bursts (pulses) of power. Add the garlic and pulse a few times more.  This gets the basil chopped a little, but not too much.

Slowly pour in the olive oil in a steady stream while the blender is on.  Everything should be well mixed and chopped.  Add the grated cheese and pulse some more.  Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula.  Taste the mixture.  Remember that the cheese adds a little salt.  Add more salt and pepper to taste.

This will give you about 1 cup.  Needless to say, I made a lot more than that.

I spooned the pesto into little plastic containers with lids, about 1/3 cup capacity, and put them in the freezer.  I've found that the basil tends to soak up some of the oil, even when frozen, and becomes pasty.  But stirring in a little more oil before using restores the pesto to the right consistency.  Though a year has passed, we still have some in the freezer and it tastes great.

Pesto is wonderful on toast, pasta, vegetables, chicken, veal and pork dishes, to mention a very few.  My favorite is roasted red bell pepper stuffed with feta cheese, pesto spooned over the top, and served warm.  Since we have a bumper crop of red and yellow bell peppers this year, we're eating a lot of them with pesto.

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Put Your Garden To Bed And You'll Rest Better, Too.

When fall arrives, many gardeners are tempted to put off until spring what they should do today. Yield not to temptation. Necessary chores completed in a timely fashion will save time and labor, and give you a sense of satisfaction.  In other words, put your garden to bed and you'll rest better, too.

Before you begin your winter hibernation, complete these garden tasks:

Tidy up. Dead plants and garden debris provide shelter for insect pests and the four-footed varieties. Not only that, decaying plants also harbor fungi and plant diseases. But don't carry the debris street-side for trash collectors; compost it. Composting turns it into rich, organic material for next year's garden.
Most of us have childhood memories of Saturday afternoons raking up large piles of fallen foliage and jumping into them. Then the leaves were raked again and carted off to the curb. But there are better alternatives. If you insist upon a well-groomed lawn, collect the leaves and compost them. However, I prefer leaving them on the lawn and chopping them to bits with my lawnmower. A mulching attachment will reduce them to pieces small enough that they will filter into the grass, self-compost, and add to the organic content of your lawn. In fact, a mulching mower used all year long will return grass clippings to the lawn with the same result.

Prune. Pruning includes dead-heading your perennials. When bloom-time is over, many plants become unsightly. Dead-heading will improve the appearance of your garden and remove unwanted seeds. Furthermore, you will be making room for new spring growth, especially if you have interplanted with spring-blooming flower bulbs. If pruning trees or shrubs in autumn, only remove dead or dying tissue. Heavy pruning may stimulate new growth at a time when you need it least. New growth late in the year can be severely damaged by cold and compromise the health of your plants.

Fertilize. Fall fertilizing is done for different reasons than spring fertilizing. In spring, the object is to stimulate new top growth for lush foliage and abundant bloom. Fall fertilizing, however, is to stimulate root growth. Plants must have a good foundation to build upon next spring. Whether fertilizing lawn, garden, shrubs or trees, the purpose is the same. Fertilizers for fall application are formulated differently than those for spring. Nitrogen (N) content will be lower or in a slow-release form. Phosphorus (P) and potash (K) will be at relatively higher levels. When reading fertilizer formulations, know that the order is N-P-K. In addition to granular fertilizers, other organic additions may include compost and bone meal.

Plant flower bulbs. Many of us think of planting fall bulbs when we see crocuses, daffodils and tulips popping up in the spring. Too late! Fall is the time to plant those, so don't delay. It's best to plan your spring-flowering bulb purchases in July, order in August or September, and plant in September or October. But planting in October or November is still not too late. Be sure to buy high-quality bulbs in larger sizes. Larger bulbs produce more flowers sooner. Typically, discounters and big box stores carry smaller bulbs because they want to offer the lowest prices. You get what you pay for. Sometimes you don't even get what you pay for, so buy from a reputable source.

By the arrival of spring, gardeners can't wait to get into their gardens. What a disappointment to be faced with garden chores from fall still waiting. Get into your garden now while the air is clear and the temperature brisk. You'll enjoy it, feel better having done it, and your garden will be in better condition come spring.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

FAQ: When is the best time to prune muscadine vines?

Q. I have inherited my fathers property which include his coveted muscadine vines. He could put anything in the ground and it would grow. These vines are at least 20+ years and it looks as if they need a little pruning. Dad made it to 90 years old and I don't think he could care for them the last couple of years like he use to. There are still some green leaves on them and I was wondering if this month (October) is a good time to do some pruning?  We live in south central Louisiana in case the region would need to be taken into consideration.

A. You could do some pruning now if you simply need to thin out some of the vines or trim them up so they don't run along the ground.  But if you need to do some radical pruning, as described in my Youtube videos, you should wait until the vines drop their leaves and become dormant.  Around here, that would be after Thanksgiving.  Don't be alarmed if the spurs (remaining stubs of the cut vines) drip water during warm spells; the will not "bleed" to death.

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FAQ: How long before my saffron crocus bulbs sprout?

Q. This is the first time I've grown saffron crocuses and was wondering how long before I can expect to see foliage poking out of the ground?

A. I understand that you planted them very recently. Your Crocus sativus bulbs, which sprout and bloom in fall, need to establish roots before they begin growing foliage. That may take 10 days or more, but the time is not exact because of various factors such as outdoor temperature, planting site (should be well-drained soil), planting depth, etc. I've seen fall-blooming crocuses try to grow in the box before planting, but that's not a good thing. You may get a few blooms the year in which you plant them, but you'll have a better bloom the following year.

To learn more, check out my blog article for more information on crocuses.

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