What Are Heirloom Bulbs?

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Also called "antique bulbs," heirloom bulbs are bulbs that have survived and thrived naturally in a particular setting or settings for a minimum of fifty years. Flowers that result from the planting of bulbs (and similar underground stems, such as corms, rhizomes, tubers, and tuberous roots) include the tulip, narcissus, hyacinth, canna, lily, crocus, iris, dahlia, and ginger. There are also many lesser-known flowers that are grown from bulbs and their fleshy cousins, such as snowdrop, squill, spider lily, and crinum.

Heirloom bulbs are grown because they are likely to survive---sometimes even in difficult conditions, they are easy to grow in their natural habitats, and they often display colors and patterns which are not available in newer varieties. Heirloom bulbs are often commercially produced on small farms by gardeners who wish to save them from extinction.

Many gardeners are attracted to the history and lore of the heirloom bulbs in their gardens. For example, oxblood lilies grown in some parts of the deep South, such as Louisiana, are commonly called "hurricane lilies" because they bloom during the peak of hurricane season. Many of the older cannas were wildly popular during Victorian England, when anything "sub-tropical" was all the rage, and appeal to lovers of Victoriana. Cannas such as 'Florence Vaughn' and 'Cleopatra' are outrageously dotted and spangled with the bright colors that were so popular with Victorian gardeners.

No bulb, however, has a more colorful history than the tulip. During the period of "tulip mania" in the 17th Century Dutch Republic (now known as The Netherlands), the cost of a prized tulip bulb could be hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars, a phenomenon which led to a frenzy of market speculation. The tulips that went for the highest prices—the bulbs that actually created this buying and selling frenzy—were produced from bulbs that were infected with a virus that caused the flowers to have a "broken" look, with unusual colors, streaks and patterns. As a result of tulip mania, the tulip market eventually collapsed, creating a crisis for the Dutch economy.

Most of the heirloom bulbs in the United States were brought to the country by early settlers from Europe, and many were also brought over by people from Asia and Africa. When climate conditions were similar to those of the home country, these bulbs naturalized easily, and later became garden staples. People who live in areas where it is difficult to garden find that growing heirloom bulbs keeps their gardens healthy and also provides reliable bloom each season. It is not unusual to find neglected heirloom bulbs growing in cemeteries and near abandoned houses.

submitted by Diane Elayne Dees