This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
It will be necessary to explain what we mean by herbaceous bulbs. Of course, all bulbs are herbaceous, none are shrubby or woody: all are more or less annual in their parts; at least, the same actual bulb does not flower a second time. Looking at the subject closely, it is difficult to define what a bulb really is. It is easy to realise that a ripe Tulip or Hyacinth is a bulb; so is an Onion or Snowdrop; and a ripe Crocus or Gladiolus may also be pronounced a bulb without challenge. A little further and we get to bulbs of Cyclamens, Gloxinias, Begonias, Turnips, Potatoes, and many other things: then we begin to change our nomenclature, and call them corms, tubers, etc. After all, they are all pretty much of the same character - big buds with a portion of stem attached. The buds on the stem of the Tiger Lily become bulbs when placed underground; and the swollen buds on the Potato haulm become tubers or underground stems, with buds on them, when placed in the ground. The bulb of the Hyacinth differs only from that of the Agapanthus in that it is deciduous, while the other is evergreen, just as the Onion differs from the Leek. Avoiding going further into this maze of distinction without difference, we will explain simply that by herbaceous bulbs we mean for the present all bulbs, whether evergreen or otherwise, of a liliaceous character, which remain, or ought to remain, in the soil all the year round, as distinguished from the ordinary Dutch bulbs with which most people are familiar.
One would imagine that flowering bulbs were confined to Hyacinths, Tulips, and Crocuses, judging from the rush there is after those for spring-flowering; just as summer flowers have to the popular mind become associated with Geraniums, forgetting or being ignorant of the fact that there are very many beautiful bulbous plants which flower in company with the Hyacinth, and others which flower when the Hyacinth is asleep. Indeed there is no time of the year, except, perhaps, three of the winter months, in which some of these liliaceous bulbs may not be found in flower; and it is really marvellous, in visiting both public and private gardens, to remark the absence of these old-fashioned bulbs. The discovery of Lilium auratum seemed to arouse the public mind to the fact that there was such a thing as a family of Lilies in the world, and so collectors have rummaged up varieties from all the ends of the earth. At the present time the Hyacinth has a representative in the shape of Hyacinthus candicans, yet in bloom, a gaunt-looking but interesting plant.
The Colchicurus, in variety single and double, are now bearing it company, the latter not so common as they might be; so is the Belladonna Lily, where the climate and soil are suitable; and the more modest Sternbergia lutea, as hardy as the Snowdrop - the first to close and the other to open the bulb season. The Belladonna Lily is specially gorgeous when planted along the front of a vinery or conservatory, in suitable light and peaty soil, and allowed to remain undisturbed like the Colchicums. Between the Sternbergia and the Snowdrop is only three months; the other nine can be filled up with a succession of these herbaceous bulbs: the Lilies alone would fill the gap. But there are many old-fashioned bulbs besides which are nearly forgotten, but which are to be often found in cottage gardens, and gardens which have been neglected, or which have escaped the modern march of improvement. How pleasant it is to see great clumps of Fritillaria meleagris coming up in spring where unexpected, growing and flowering anywhere; or the sturdy Crown Imperials, which require, however, to be well established in strong clumps on good soil to flower well.
There are no herbaceous bulbs which surpass the Narcissus for hardiness, beauty, or variety, - from the grassy little Hoop-petticoat, with its ample flower, to the giant maximus, in all shades of yellow and white, single and double. These, as well as the Polyanthus Narcissus, annually make stronger and stronger clumps, flower earlier, and, of course, more profusely, if left alone. The Pheasant Eye, single and double in variety, are our favourite: as sweet - scented as Gardenias, and more beautiful, they are not even surpassed by Eucharis or Phalaenopsis to our taste. Everybody may now have them, as they are being offered by the bushel like Onions. The bulbs we have seen this year are unusually large. The double varieties especially require a rich soil and rich top-dressings, and plenty of room to develop themselves. The old Muscaris botyroides and monstrosum, the Grape and Feather Hyacinth, are herbaceous bulbs almost forgotten, except in the foresaid cottage or neglected garden. The same may be said of the Scillas, except siberica and bifolia. The Wood Hyacinths are showy and cheap; and though plentiful enough in the woods in some parts, are equally unknown in others and about towns.
The Day Lilies, of which there are several varieties, all more or less yellow in colour, come in just after the Narcissus, and are worthy of cultivation, though very old-fashioned. They cannot be called bulbs, however, being evergreen, their growth being more after the style of the Agapanthus - another plant neglected, though hardy, in the south, and everywhere on light soil. Then there are the Anthericum liliastrum, and spring and summer Snowflakes, and the Ornithogalums, most of them native and consequently hardy, that will grow anywhere, even among grass. The whole of the Alstroetncrias, which we may class among herbaceous liliaceous bulbs, are of the most showy and Lasting character. Some of them are still in flower: the variety of their colour and pencilling rivals the Gladiolus. They have all stood the last severe winter on a rather wet border, without the slightest protection. On a warm deep border in the southern counties they are gorgeous. The Gladiolus itself, in all its varieties, is best treated just like herbaceous plants. In well-prepared soil they, in a very few years, make large massive stools from single bulbs if let alone.
We have a large quantity in a raised bed, with the bulbs very near the surface, which have not been disturbed for years, and the frosts of last winter did not affect them in the least. Now, in the middle of October, they are a profusion of flowers. Their protection was a slight covering of bog earth and snow. There are several of the narrow-leaved small-flowered species or allies of the Gladiolus which will be found to be perfectly hardy in well-drained soil, such as the Watsonias and Antholyzas. The Tritonias will sometimes bridge over the winter with protection; but there is no use going into doubtful plants when there are so many perfectly hardy and of equal beauty - as, for instance, the Tigridias, Spanish and English Irises, and the whole range of Liliums, to the beauty of which the public are sufficiently aroused. There are two of the Anemones which we wish specially to mention - namely, Nemorosa plena and apennina, - the first the double form of the well-known Wood Anemone; the other a plant of precisely the same habit, but with a beautiful blue flower, a little brighter than the common Wood Anemone. There is another class of plants which may be classed among herbaceous plants though not liliaceous, and whose roots are not strictly bulbous - the European Cyclamens. The autumn-flowering ones are now gay on the rockery.
They do not seem very particular as to soil, and also seem indifferent as to wet or dryness, although stagnant water would certainly kill them. In some parts of the country the native C. Hederaefolia is plentiful on dry banks, and for a time are as bright and interesting as the Primulas. They are so easily raised from seed that it is surprising they are not sought after for outdoor culture, as the Persian varieties are for the conservatory. The Squire's Gardener.