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The Flower-Bulb Chronicles

October 04, 1987|Robert Smaus

THE FLOWER BULB is one of gardening's greatest mysteries: It begins as one thing--a pulpy mass in a papery husk--and grows to become quite another thing altogether. Thus, stories about bulbs should read a little like detective tales. Here are three cases to consider, as recounted by a gumshoe gardener.

A Classy Bulb

Oct. 25: It looked too late for those bulbs. Picking through the cardboard box at the nursery, I could find only bulbs that had sprouted. If they had been garlics or onions, I would have left them there. But this was the saffron crocus, a classy bulb if there ever was one. I bought a dozen at 45 cents a pop.

Oct. 26: I found the spot, a narrow alley of soil between two concrete steppingstones. Under a hot October sun, I planted the bulbs just below the surface, the sprouts above ground. I left no room between the bulbs. In that skinny slit of soil they looked uncomfortable, like sardines in can. They were a long way from their ancient Mediterranean home.

Nov. 4: Nothing happened for eight days. A patient man would have waited. I wasn't one. I dug up a bulb. It had grown a dozen roots about three inches long. I carefully planted it again and went back to waiting.

Nov. 11: It was one of those mornings that is already hot and dry--when everything is too bright and the sky too blue. I stepped outside and saw, through the glare of the early sun, the saffron crocus in full flower. It looked as though it was going to be a pretty day after all.

Around the Mediterranean, saffron is grown as a cash crop, like lima beans. I tried to imagine what a field full of saffron looked like. I couldn't. Even these few flowers were a spectacle. From the back door I could see the brilliant red saffron styles that yield the precious spice that sells for an arm and a leg and turns everything it touches a golden orange. I went out into the garden and got on my hands and knees. The light veining in the lilac petals made the flowers look like feathers, and the styles lay languid across them, a fortune in saffron for the picking. But I couldn't do it. Fortune would have to wait another day.

Nov. 12: In the morning the flowers were still there, and I found a lot of good reasons to walk by them during the day. Other flowers could be seen pushing their way through the dense bundle of leaves; there would be other days like this, I thought. Now was the time to harvest the styles, and I picked them from between the wilted petals and set them aside to dry. Paella was their future. I made a note to plant more next year, though I managed to fill a tiny brown vial with this year's crop. Maybe I'd buy an acre down in Escondido. At eight bucks a bottle, I could see Easy Street right around the corner.

March 15: Months have passed since the last flowers faded, but I can still see the saffron glowing in that too-bright October sun. The leaves are just beginning to yellow. They were long enough to trip over so I cut them back to about four inches and they looked like little tufts of grass. I didn't want to cut them any more than that; they still needed to manufacture enough food to carry them through the long, hot L.A. summer. I look forward to their return. They are among the few bulbs that come back every year.

Not a Weed

Oct. 21: They were the ugliest bulbs I had ever seen--dark and crusty like some old loaf of bread that you'd find on a monk's table. They came in a plastic package filled with sawdust; the grower probably hoped that would hide their ugliness. I bought some anyway. The picture on the package looked pretty, and they were called the Grand Duchess strain. I liked that. At home I gave them a hurried burial, covering them with just an inch of soil, spacing them about two inches apart, pointy part up. They sat between the steppingstones outside the front door.

Nov. 5: I had almost forgotten about those ugly little bulbs, but this morning there were a few clover-like leaves in that narrow space. They were staying low as if they knew that they could get stepped on.

Nov. 11: Leaves are starting to fall, but the gap between the steppingstones is now a field of shamrocks.

Nov. 16: I got up late and went out, squinting, to fetch the paper. I never made it. There at my feet were dozens of tiny white flowers, glistening in the midday sun, looking like China set for field mice. I went back in, poured a cup of coffee and came back and sat on the front steps. I could now see why they were named Grand Duchess. This oxalis didn't look anything like the weedy ones that had strangled parts of my garden. This one had elegant, glove-white flowers.

Jan. 1: The New Year found the oxalis still in flower. They close up every night and only open when the sun is bright overhead, and if you spend too much time at the office you never see them. I make a point of not spending too much time at the office.

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