The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Certain delicate spring bulbs are becoming impossible to buy. Mary Keen asks why…
Instagram gardeners share their failures as well as their triumphs. Recently, the main moan has been about how difficult it is to obtain true Crocus tommasinianus (aka “tommies”). For those of us who love plants that naturalise, this winter favourite is top of the list. Mine were ordered from a reputable bulb merchant, who sent the sterile ‘Ruby Giant’ instead.
When I complained, they replaced the bulbs the following year, for free, for more of the same. Last September, friends with the same problem exchanged names of nurseries who purport to offer the real thing. Several friends put in orders, but come January, instead of the silvery sheen of the wild form, what Dan Pearson calls “Quality Street purples” appeared. And I wasn’t the only disappointed customer. There is nothing to compare with pale drifts of self-seeded tommies, long before spring arrives. No wonder Instagram was buzzing with complaints.
John Grimshaw, one of our best horticulturalists and an ex-consultant to the nursery trade, commented on Instagram: “I don’t share your dislike of the purple, but it isn’t the desired silvery tommies, and never will be, as it is sterile and has no useful pollen for the bees, which is a significant demerit.” He was the obvious person to ask why these species crocuses are now unobtainable.
He opened by saying: “The average gardener understands very little of the complexities of the bulb trade.” Everything it seems, comes to us via Holland, where the bulb industry is mechanised to produce standard products of the same weight and size. Seed-raised C. tommasinianus doesn’t grow well for the Dutch producers, nor does it fit their efficient model. One of the reasons
gardeners want the unimproved form is because it seeds. But tiny seed-raised bulbs, the size of pearls, are impossible to harvest. It is much easier to increase stock from offsets, or from chipping cultivars, a Dutch grower told me.
Avon Bulbs stopped listing C. tommasinianus some time ago when they realised they were no longer obtainable. Nor now do they offer the true Narcissus pseudonarcissus, our own wild daffodil, which will seed around like grass when happy. This is because Dutch growers used to rely on bulbs dug from the wild in France, an activity now banned. But these pale wildlings, which attract pollinators are, for some of us, much more desirable than larger, more colourful clones.
Both C. tommasinianus and N. pseudonarcissus have flowers in what artists call broken colour, which makes for a gentler, more subtle look in the watery sunshine of spring. They are a perfect choice for modern, naturalistic gardens. Another unobtainable spring treat is Anemone apennina. I asked Grimshaw why this was so and, of course, he knew the answer: unlike Anemone blanda, the bulbs won’t tolerate desiccation, so they are no good to the dry bulb trade. That rules out three favourites I used to enjoy in past gardens.
Grimshaw thinks the only way to grow tommies is from seed. If you know somewhere where they grow in silvery drifts, May is the moment to beg some seed. He suggests broadcasting the seed in grass and waiting three to four years.
Meanwhile, those of us who are less patient are swapping snowdrops for a few trowelfuls of real tommies. If any nursery feels like raising a stock of these now-rare small bulbs, gardeners will start queuing up.