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Sorting Through Bulbs

Finally, I’m doing it. I’m going through all those old bulb pots I’ve had skulking around, putting up fewer and fewer flowers and leaves, giving me a guilty quiver whenever I looked at them: I was being a bad bulb mother.

My idea was to go through them all, save the dirt – which I paid good money for – and retrieve as many bulbs as were still there. I knew whatever was left would probably have shrunk small, doing their best to survive by shriveling on their lean rations and making offsets. But I figured: in nature, bulbs revive after long droughts and difficulties; maybe I can find a way to help them do that.

When I find loose-tuniced bulbs, I’ve learned to unwrap them for the surprise inside.

I have a lot of fellow feeling for these bulbs. I myself am slowly,slowly convalescing from a long illness which was supposed to get worse and worse, shrinking my life into a small shriveled thing until it took me out entirely. Instead, despite the advice of the experts, I’m resurrecting.

So, why not my bulbs?

Some of them are rare antiques, bought at prices I don’t even want to mention in public; those I replanted right away. Others – Apricot Beauty, Queen of the Night, Thalia – can be bought anywhere, and if you shop right, can be found very cheaply. But don’t they deserve a new life, too, if I can help them to it?

So I’m sorting through all my pots, looking for hidden treasure.

This one reveals three offsets.

Some of the old containers turn up completely empty, with only a few papery bits of bulb tunic and dried nets of roots to show anything was there. I can’t help seeing the parable, here. Some aspects of my old life have been completely obliterated by going through this illness, become part of the compost for whatever comes next.

Other bulbs surprise me by their tenacity, like the mysterious bulbs I found in a pot today.

At first, I thought, “Are these lilies?” They already had roots going – my plan to go through the pots while the bulbs were still completely dormant had to go the way of many of my plans lately. I just didn’t have the energy or ability to do it this summer, not even little by little, as I am now.

But I couldn’t imagine that lilies would last unwatered that long. It’s my custom to leave my spring bulbs unwatered in summer, as they are in their native lands. That’s actually why I started gardening with bulbs. I had so little water available to me that I scoured books and catalogues, seeking beauty that didn’t requre water.

Lilies do, though, year-round, and they never really go dormant. But these bulbs looked wrong for lilies. Their thick white roots were a little fatter than lily roots, and when I brushed off the dirt, I couldn’t see scales on the bulbs.

Finally the mystery was revealed: I found a label, deep into the pot.

(And by the way, how do labels do that? I mean, I know some bulbs can burrow themselves deeper into the soil to resist drought, but labels? Do the bulbs teach them how?)

The label read, “F. persica”. Fritillaria persica, that elusive bulb which has never once bloomed for me, had not only survived, but multiplied. I’ve never bought more than five, and there were seven or eight.

I’m still not sure the fritillaria will flower for me, but I repotted it into nursery pots, as I have several other bulbs that were showing roots. The nursery pots are special situations designed to encourage bulbs tottering on the edge of extinction into resurrection. I split the bulbs into their separate entities and buried them in richer soil with good doses of organic flower fertilizer blend, azomite and greensand. I’m also experimenting with using mycorhizzae. I have no idea if this will actually help; I’m just going by instinct, here. But since instinct is the way I got through a medically incurable illness, I figure it’s worth the experiment. Resurrection is a chancy thing.

The surviving bulbs vary from about half-size (with darkened, tough tunics) to very, very tiny pale white offsets that don’t have tunics at all.

The fritillaria label managed to burrow deep and survive, but other labels have learned the art of transmigration, dematerializing from one reality into another. I’m putting most of the retrieved bulbs into paper bags with the labels in and the names written on the bag – but the biggest assortment of bags are named something like “T. ?” or “N. ?” for the anonymous tiny tulips and narcissi which abound in my old pots. Even the treasured antique ones (which I know by their special pots) have labels like, “antique tulip #1” and on through 4 or 5.

Despite my labeling mania, my deep personal religious practice of using permanent aluminum labels which become engraved with the stroke of a ball point pen, many of the pots are complete mysteries to me now. At one time this would have irritated me immensely: all that labor lost.

But now, I just have to laugh. All that effort, all that obsessive and – I have to admit it – somewhat self-righteous labeling, all of that jaw-tightening effort to make sure everything was put into its proper category, remembered by its proper name, done right.

What was I trying to accomplish by that, I wonder? Why were those labels – which will probably last longer than my body – such a point of fervor? As Wallace Stevens put it, “Oh blessed rage for order, pale Ramon.” Well, I got pale on my rage for order, all right, pale enough that I’m putting aside both rage and the need to impose my conception of order on a deeper order that already exists.

Instead, I’m just enjoying myself. Resurrection can be fun.

Here’s the latest offering for my “T. ?” bags, to soak in kelp water and maybe do some juju on before I plant. (The labels? Not only do I have bulbs without labels, I have labels which have lost their bulbs. Since they have two sides, I’m saving these to be repurposed, also.)

Sorting through bulbs has an Easter-egg-hunt aspect to it. I’m never quite sure if I’ll find something or not, or what it will be if I do. I don’t have any way of predicting what will thrive and what will give up the ghost. It’s a good harbinger for my own future life, which may present me with unknown gifts, fragmented remains of something which once flourished in my garden, or something I can’t even imagine.

The pleasure is in not knowing.

And waiting for spring.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Daffodil Planter November 28, 2011, 7:23 pm

    Happy to read that you are on the mend. Tantalized by the prospect of the spring blooms.

  • Breathing Treatment (Brent) November 30, 2011, 9:13 am

    What a wonderful story.

  • Orlando Garden Design November 13, 2012, 3:48 pm

    Perhaps they are to be the symbol of your renewed strength?

  • rosa complicata November 18, 2012, 8:44 am

    I have just discovered your beautifull blog! Such enjoyable reading.
    all the best

  • Jakko Exel December 15, 2012, 4:06 am

    What a beautiful story full of meanings!

  • Ioana December 18, 2012, 12:11 am

    such a LOVELY post! and you are so right, half the pleasure about gardening is the surprise effect when you see/discover something you did not remember planting or that you thoght long lost!
    All the best for the comming year!

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