One of the great successes over the past month in the garden has been our Camassia. These are a group of beautiful bulbs from North America which are actually in the asparagus family. We have been planting them in the meadows for some years and now that their numbers and size have bulked up, the display has been particularly wonderful this year. There are several species, forming stunning blue or white spikes flowering from late April all the way through to June, and by using a variety of these species we can really lengthen the season.
First to flower is the deep blue Camassia leichtliii ssp. caerulia. This has been concentrated in the orchard and flowers in perfect timing to combine with the apple blossom. Next to flower is the sky blue Camassia cusickii and a little later still is the shorter, electric blue of Cammasia quimash, which works beautifully with the yellow of the buttercups in the meadow. Last of all to flower is the white Camassia lichlinii ‘Alba’, which continues deep into June and is looking stunning in the spring garden with the blue Iris sibirica and a giant buttercup we grow called Ranunculus acris ‘Stevenii’.
When these bulbs are planted in meadows, they tend to work best in large drifts so that they have the maximum impact. We always try and arrange them in the way the plants would naturally in the wild, in groups with outlying clusters. This irony is that making it appear as if the plants put themselves there without interference from a gardener is quite time consuming! On the scale of our meadow we have to work with large numbers of bulbs and each year we plant several thousand. This process goes really quite quickly and with a bulb planting tool and three good gardeners our record is 1000 bulbs planted in an hour. Once established, these bulbs will not only flower year after year but will also self-seed.
Camassia bulbs have long been a very important food plant in North America, where native people farmed them with controlled burning of the grassland. This would keep an open prairie for the Camassia to thrive. In the autumn, the bulbs would be lifted so that the large ones could be eaten and the small ones replanted. Traditionally they were pit roasted for 24 to 48 hours resulting in the flavour of a very sweet, sweet potato. This would have been an important source of sweetness before sugar and honey was introduced to this part of the Americas. For many years I have wanted to taste them, but after enjoying the flowers so much this spring I have decided that they are most definitely too beautiful to eat!
You can read Tom's latest article in Country Life 'How to get around the problem of dry shade' on our Press Page.
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