Bulbs for the South has much to offer Northwest gardeners

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Garden Bulbs for the South

2nd edition

By Scott Ogden

396 pages, 278 color photographs

Timber Press 2007, $34.95

Reviewed by Karen Preuss

What, you may ask, is a book with the word “south” in its title doing in this publication? True, the geographic references in Scott Ogden’s new edition of Garden Bulbs for the South are placed squarely in Texas, the Southeast, and even Mexico.  But the Pacific Northwest shares many qualities of the more southern climes. A colleague of mine at the Birmingham Botanic Garden library in Alabama was surprised to learn that we share Zone 8 on the USDA plant hardiness zone map. The South’s summers start earlier, last longer, and sustain hotter temperatures than ours. But we share the same mild, rainy winters and the drought conditions of summer. If you hate watering the garden as much as I do, many of the bulbs featured in Ogden’s book might be perfect candidates for your own garden.

Garden Bulbs for the South really reads like three books in one. First and foremost, of course, are descriptions of warm-climate bulbs (more on them shortly). It’s also a kind of travelogue, weaving into the narrative information on exactly where to see a particular plant flourishing in the wild or growing in a garden or nursery. And it’s a fascinating history of plant hunters, plantsmen and modern-day horticulturists who share Ogden’s passion for bulbs. Ogden has spent years traveling and seeking out the best places to find the myriad of bulbs included in his book, and along the way the reader is treated to the folklore, myth, and history of each.

This second edition (the first edition was published in 1994) includes updated information on bulb varieties, particularly the gingers and aroids. Ogden has also added nearly 100 new photographs, shot by him and his wife Lauren S. Ogden, a completely new chapter on designing gardens with southern bulbs, and an extensive list of U.S. and international sources for bulbs.

Nine chapters carry the reader through descriptions of literally hundreds of warm-climate bulbs. The first chapter, titled “Rain Lily Day,” focuses mostly on zephyranthes, commonly known as rain lilies, fairy lilies, zephyr lilies, or atamascos. I have to admit, I’ve never been much of a lily fan (with the sole exception of daylilies). But, oh my goodness, these little beauties might just make me a believer.

From the delicate Zephyranthes candida, to the gorgeous pink of Habranthus pendunculosa, or  Zephyranthes katherinae with its crimson petals, this particular lily family has completely won me over.

A chapter on winter blooms highlights familiar favorites of early-blooming narcissus, hyacinths, starflowers, anemones, ranunculus, and winter cyclamen. Later chapters are dedicated to irises, gladioli, and shellflowers; crinums and spiderlilies; summer lilies; and cannas, gingers, and aroids. Be sure to read the opening paragraphs in the chapter “Jonquils and Kin” for Odgen’s short history and clarifying explanation of the differences among narcissus, jonquils, and daffodils, before continuing on for a tour of a stunning variety of all three.

Ogden’s extensive background as a horticulturist and garden designer, his engaging readable style of writing, and beautiful color photographs all combine to make Garden Bulbs for the South a must-read for bulb lovers. On a first, quick paging through the book, my eye was drawn to photographs: Cyclamen hederifolium, Sparaxis elegans, Bessera elegans, Kaempferia rotunda ‘Silver Diamonds’. A second pass reminded me of how delightful and appropriately-descriptive common plant names can be: hooped petticoats, angel’s tears, painted petals, prairie nymphs, rattlesnake master, sweet snow, dancing girls. 

Finally, a careful reading to learn about the histories, varieties, and growing requirements of familiar and unusual bulbs. As I make a cross-country move back to the Northeast and its snowy winters, I’ll return often to Garden Bulbs for the South, if only to daydream.  NWGN

Karen Preuss was the Library Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens from 2005 to 2007. She relocated to New York City in August 2007.


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