Pretty in Purple

LAH_2023Thank heaven for spring bulbs! Just when I can’t bear another day of bleak winter landscape, leafless branches, dried and disintegrating foliage—along come neon-bright crocuses, dancing daffodils, and my favorite, luscious purple grape hyacinths. Not true hyacinths (which are borderline hardy in my 7,000 foot high garden), grape hyacinths are also sold under their genus Muscari. They’re native to southeastern Europe, and are widely cultivated for their early spring flowers in pink, purple, white, or a two-toned combination.

For the most part, popular spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils aren’t really at home in Colorado. Oh, they’ll put on a terrific show the first year (if nothing eats the delicious tulip bulbs during the winter), but subsequent years are often disappointing. Muscari, on the other hand, happily multiply in my garden, both by division of the bulbs and by seed. On top of that, they even smell wonderful. (Many people compare their scent to grape bubblegum.) Who could resist?

LAH_2028The small bulbs are readily available both by mail order and in local garden centers. Buy them in early fall and get them into the ground by the end of October. Roots will grow in the still-warm soil, holding the bulb in place during the freeze/thaw cycle of winter. They prefer full sun and average soil. In Colorado, if you haven’t previously amended your plot, that means adding about three inches of compost and digging it in before planting. Set the bottom of the bulbs between two and three inches deep, then cover the entire planting area with a couple inches of mulch. (The mulch keeps down weeds, evens out soil moisture levels, keeps soil frozen during the winter, and in general is a Very Good Thing to Do.)

My grape hyacinths are planted in the hot, low water strip between our driveway and our south-facing patio. Because they do their growing and blooming in the spring, they’re well adapted to moist spring soil followed by drought—just what I have to offer.

Muscari has long thin leaves that coincide with the first crocus. Flower stalks follow a few weeks later. Enjoy the bloom, then let the foliage slowly fade in place. Until they die, the leaves continue to make food that’s stored for next year. Once the foliage is dry, simply rake it off to make room for your summer garden. If you don’t want volunteer seedlings, remove the flower stalks before the seeds mature.

Often the foliage (but not flowers) reappears in the fall when temperatures drop. Remember, the leaves are there to feed the bulb, so allow them to grow undisturbed. (I also appreciate the reminder that the bulbs are buried there, just at the time of year that I’m adding new bulbs to my garden.)

Most Colorado soils contain plenty of potassium and phosphorus, but your bulbs might appreciate a nitrogen fertilizer applied while the plants are in active growth. (If you aren’t sure about the fertility of your garden, an inexpensive soil test is an excellent investment.)

With their casual appearance, Muscari do well naturalized among still-dormant shrubs and under deciduous trees. One popular method of creating an unstructured look is to gently toss the bulbs into the area where you want them to grow, then plant each bulb wherever it came to rest.

If deer are a problem in your area, you’ll be happy to learn that they’re not overly fond of grape hyacinths (although they’ll eat them if nothing else is available). Rabbits, on the other hand, have been known to take a nibble. I suspect that pocket gophers would also find them on the menu. Still, the flowers are so lovely and the plants so carefree that it’s worth the gamble.


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