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Minor triumphs: Muscari azureum season


Catalogs call them "minor bulbs"--those little gems that brighten up our gardens in late winter. I am frankly astounded that you see so few of these in Denver gardens (or anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region). For any number of geobotanical reasons, there are only a very small number of early spring ephemerals in our native flora. But the Mediterranean region and Central Asia teem with extraordinary flowers that bloom  as snows melt. These seem to grow here with real gusto. Crocuses, snowdrops, Cyclamen coum and reticulate irises are all winter's jewels or else spring's earliest heralds. And there are many more as well, but the tiny grape hyacinth, Muscari azureum, holds a special place in my affections. 

Mention grape hyacinth, and many gardeners groan: the commonly grown Muscari armeniacum or M. neglectum thrive here all right: they can be downright pesky in the garden, producing vast sheaths of messy foliage in fall that singes by spring and doesn't quite justify their gloomy purple blue clusters that come a little too late  (when everything else is blooming too).

 There are a number of equally prolific grape hyacinths with more winning traits, and the first of these is this tiny blue marvel that usually opens its first blossoms at ground level in February. March, however, is its time of glory: right now the dry borders in my garden have wide swaths of azure blue, like the little pool of color you can see below.

Muscari azureum

It is prolific, but please don't summon the invasive police!  In this case, one can never seem to have enough of this good thing. It sprinkles my borders, my rock garden, it seems to pop up somewhere new every year. Of course, I have been known to gather its seeds in May and scatter them around rather enthusiastically. This little gem is above ground only a few weeks, and at the time of year our gardens are their most austere and need that little extra kick. And tiny though it is, its piercing blue is welcome.

I first came to know this plant in the garden of the late T. Paul Maslin, an eminent biologist who taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Paul passed away in 1984. He was my near neighbor growing up with the most beautiful garden in Boulder (maybe in the state). He became my mentor and best friend. He loved this bulb (then known as Hyacinthus azureus) which grew everywhere in his garden too. In fact, my plants trace their origins to Paul. In the later 20th century, Botanists called this bulb Hyacinthella azurea, so the Latin specific epithet has progressed from masculine to feminine and is now neuter! 

No matter what it's name or sex may be, this is a bulb I wouldn't want to live without. Every day in March I go out and admire it here and there, and think of the vast swaths of Anatolia that it graces in nature (where, no doubt, some of my ancestors a millenium ago admired it too), and of my wonderful friend, Paul. I look forward to the day it carpets much of my half acre with azure scatterugs of sparkling blue. One could have much worse predilections, I'm sure you would agree!



Ah, M. azureum foliage looks much *tidier* than the typical M. armeniacum we tear out of our gardens in frustration here in PDX. The color is lighter and finer, too. I will be adding it to my garden - I see squidzillions of adorable little winter bouquets in my future!
Panayoti Kelaidis

This a whole different kettle of fish from those ratty grape hyacinths: the foliage on these comes up in early spring with the flowers and dies away just as promptly. And Yes, yes. Squidzillions (or octopusillions, which ever is bigger).
Panayoti Kelaidis

Thank you Roger! The geobotanical reasons that bulbs are so rare in Colorado are many, but I will only list a two: 1) our Colorado Great Plains Flora is mostly derived from the boreal elements of what Botanists refer to as the Holarctic Floristic kingdom. This region is much poorer in Iridaceae, Liliaceae and Amaryllidaceae than the Madrean Floristic Province whence the California flora derives largely. Ergo, we are bulb poor (alas). 2) Colorado is characterized primarily by summer rainfall: the bulk of our precipitation is SUPPOSED to fall between March and September. (Not that it does every year). Summer rainfall areas are much poorer in geophytes than winter rainfall steppe or Mediterranean climates. I do grow Muscari macrocarpum, which does not bloom here until a month AFTER M. azureum. It is not nearly as prolific, and a bit fussier in the garden. So you must not be growing azureum? I have many thousanda of these and plenty to spare! I'd be happy to send you some!
Roger Raiche

Hi Panayoti, Lovely article. It did make me wonder what the "any number of geobotanical reasons..." were that there are so few native ephemerals - though maybe you went into that in another article. Secondly, have you tried M. macrocarpum? Maybe it has a hardiness issue? For me it is the earliest bulb to flower, and has a wonderful fragrance, and it persists and increases without being invasive - all nice assets for a bulb. Best, Roger Raiche

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