Plant native bulbs now for thriving Midwest gardens
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
September IS the time for Midwestern gardeners to add native bulb plants, along with tulips and daffodils, as harbingers of spring and which celebrate our sense of place and its history.
Such an example is wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), which was eaten by Native Americans and early explorers, including Lewis and Clark. That historic tidbit appeals to Sue Arnold, who works in the greenhouse at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
"The Camassia is lovely each spring, and elicits a lot of questions," Arnold says. "They're always surprised that it's a bulb."
Many of these native plants are spring ephemerals, which means they come and go effortlessly, leaving little trace of their existence. For instance, the large leaves of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) completely disappear with no cleanup required. This trait makes native spring ephemerals perfect for naturalizing lawns and landscapes.
A good place to start a bulb garden is with your state's native plant or a wildflower society for recommended retail sources. Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs in Ann Arbor, Mich., recommends when buying plants to make sure they're nursery propagated and not culled from the wild and labeled as nursery grown.
"We've wanted to offer Eastern (U.S.) native bulbs, but we haven't been able to find a supplier that nursery-propagates," Kunst says. "I think collecting can be sustainable and responsible - on your own land."
Kunst says one of his favorite bulbs is Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), which was introduced to him by his first-grade teacher.
"Mrs. Trickett was a wonderful teacher," he says. "Dutchman breeches has that added pleasure of reminding me of her. The foliage is beautiful, finely cut and bluish-green. The flowers are charming, and it grows happily here in Michigan," Kunst said.
George Yatskievych of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis says spring beauty, Claytonia virginica, is his favorite.
"It's a small bulb and tends to die back quickly after setting fruit," Yatskievych says. "I love seeing lawns in which this plant has become naturalized. The lawn turns into white then pinkish carpets in the spring from the flowers," he says.
Other favorites include Virginia bluebells or meadow shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). "Meadow shooting star is a true ephemeral with fantastic lovely flowers," says Eileen Roob, member of the Iowa Native Plant Society.
"I can't figure out why they aren't better known. They bloom so early in the spring, when loveliness is still improbable after long winter days," she says.
Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis, where she manages perennials and woody plants for a large, independent garden center. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.