Contributed by Brigette Brown

Despite the wonderful seasonal variety that autumn presents, there are those who already have their sights set on spring. Hovering safely out of summer’s grasp and just moments before the frost’s annual arrival, October or November are magical time of year for planting—and preparing—bulbs.

 

Nestling underground, bulbs have evolved to ensure their important energy and nutrients are conserved during winter’s dormancy in order to reappear and thrive in the spring. When a significant amount of a plant’s anatomy remains underground, it is known as a storage organ, or a geophyte. Natural predators such as grazing herbivores and adverse weather conditions, are of less concern to a plant whose life-preserving bulk is hidden well out of sight. Geophytes own a wide array of characteristics, and of course, names: tubers, roots, caudices, corms, pseudobulbs, true bulbs, and more. Many even come from different botanical ancestors despite their very similar methods of reproduction and survival, a phenomenon that scientists call convergent evolution. However, for most of us, they are colloquially known as bulbs.

Besides surviving, bulbs can also reproduce underground through propagation. The plant creates a smaller bulbil or bulblet, which uses the energy and nutrients of the main bulb and its root system to grow into a new one. However, one should not be surprised to find that some species, like those found in the onion and garlic genus Allium, form their bulbils in the flower’s head instead. Plants that flower, otherwise broadly known as angiosperms, appeared some 125 million years ago when the earth developed the natural sense and resourcefulness of using colorful, attractive blossoms for reproduction. And so, bulbs flower too, using pollination to reproduce, which creates seeds that can take up to seven years to grow into their own bulb and bloom. 

And it is these flowers that attracted humans, just like pollinators, to the magic of bulbs: the tall, elegant tulip; the carousing, jovial daffodil; the stout, ceremonial hyacinth. All across the world, these geophytes inspired royal gardens, vast economic trade, culinary craft, and even drove entire cultures into an unregulated frenzy of delight and desire. Specialty vases, shaped much like an Empire waist gown, were created to force bulbs into bloom indoors, a hobby that spread quickly from the eighteenth century into the Victorian era, and even today.

If you don’t have an outdoor garden of your own to plant bulbs, simply prepare them indoors. This autumn, pick up a few bulbs—hyacinths and narcissus are great starters. Fill a mason jar half-way with clean pebbles or marbles and place the bulb, flat side down, on the pile. Then fill the jar with water until it just touches the very bottom of the bulb, no more. Place in the refrigerator for 10—12 weeks. You’ll see roots forming over this span, so be sure to top off the water when it evaporates. Bring out your bulb jar and place it in a dark, but warmer, spot for a few days until you see a tip of growth. Then move it to a sunny windowsill. The bulb will bloom, filling the room with springtime in the heart of winter. When the bulb has completed its cycle, fades and turns yellow, cut off the growth and find a spot outdoors to plant it.