Dubbed the Bulb Hunter in a 2006 New York Times feature story, Chris Wiesinger took his passion for bulbs to vacant lots, abandoned houses, cemeteries, and construction sites throughout the South in search of botanical survivors whose descendants had never seen the inside of a big-box chain store. The vintage specimens Wiesinger sought came from hardy, historic stock, adapted to human neglect and hot climates, reappearing faithfully over decades without care or cultivation.
Traveling back roads, speaking to strangers, looking for the telltale color of a remnant iris or lily, Wiesinger started digging, then began trying to grow and share the bulbs he collected. From its humble beginnings on an East Texas sweet potato farm, his Southern Bulb Company has now grown into a full-fledged business known throughout the world, propagating and selling the rare, tough, heritage plants Wiesinger still seeks out and champions.
Nicknamed “Flower” by his fellow cadets at Texas A&M University, Wiesinger relates his adventures in bulb hunting, telling stories of the bulbs he has discovered and weaving in his own life story as a student, plantsman, and small business owner. He then teams with veteran horticulturist William C. Welch to provide advice on how to grow and appreciate the bulbs that have been rescued and reintroduced. This “primer” gives gardeners information on what bulbs to grow where, when to plant them and when they bloom, and how to incorporate them with other plants in the landscape.
Finally, Welch describes how bulbs have enhanced his personal gardens and brought him and Wiesinger together in the common cause of heirloom gardening. Entertaining, informative, and loaded with beautiful photographs, The Bulb Hunter is sure to be a favorite of gardeners and plant lovers everywhere.
|Publisher:||Texas A&M University Press|
|Series:||Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Series|
|Product dimensions:||7.10(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
CHRIS WIESINGER is the owner of the Southern Bulb Company, near Tyler, Texas (featured in the New York Times, Southern Living, and House and Garden), where he farms and sells bulbs. He speaks to gardening groups throughout the country. WILLIAM C. WELCH is professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service landscape horticulturist in College Station. He is a regular contributor to Southern Living and frequent speaker to gardening groups across the US.
Read an Excerpt
The Bulb Hunter
By Chris Wiesinger, William C. Welch
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2013 Chris Wiesinger and William C. Welch
All rights reserved.
A Little Red Tulip
My story began with a red tulip and is how I begin my talks to garden clubs and organizations: "When I was young, my family moved to California. We had gardens everywhere we lived, from my birthplace in Lafayette, Louisiana, to our old hometown of Houston, Texas, to the very hot town of Bakersfield, California. Most weekends in Bakersfield were spent maintaining the yard and visiting the garden centers," I continued. "One fall weekend, when I was about eleven, I purchased an object that looked something like a rock but was displayed in a cardboard box that had beautiful pictures of flowers all over the outside. I planted my little rock in the ground and forgot about it. Four months later, something special happened.
"It was one of those few transition days in the two weeks between winter and summer that we in the warm climates call spring. (This statement always seems to tickle the audience.) A rain shower had cleaned the air so that we could actually see the Sierra Nevadas and the Coastal Range looming in the distance, reminding us that we lived in a valley. Rays of sun pierced through the clouds and the rain had stopped, so my parents opened both front and back doors to allow a pleasant draft to sweep through the house. It was in the middle of this draft that I lay napping on the floor, occasionally staring out the front door. My eyes caught a glimmer of a spectacular color out in our front garden, and I went to inspect it. Something magical had occurred; my living rock had turned into the most striking red tulip. To me, it was a miracle, and gardening had come alive!"
I then began describing the characteristics of flower bulbs. "According to August De Hertogh in The Physiology of Flower Bulbs, all bulbs belong to a category of plants called geophytes—plants that survive by using their underground storage structures. A true bulb is similar to an onion, but many 'bulblike' organisms such as gladiolus (which are corms) are almost always mislabeled as bulbs. Lilies, tulips, daffodils, and dahlias all have different structures, some with scales, tuberous roots, and so on, and have different methods of propagation."
I began to lose the audience as I saw their eyes wander, and I heard a few people cough. I went into panic mode. What was my purpose here this evening—to educate or entertain? The material on the botany of a bulb was good information, but a dry presentation would not lead to a successful evening talk. I should have known this when I first walked up and my outfit was critiqued. Someone told me, "This is a garden crowd, so you can lose the tie."
I quickly realized that my life wasn't a dry presentation; I had been on adventures, been uprooted, and had moved to a tiny red cabin to farm bulbs, so why should my presentation be dry? Quickly, I went back to more personal stories, intermingled with botanical tidbits.
Continuing the red tulip story, I explained my hopeful anticipation for the next year's bloom. I eagerly watched the foliage come up on my bulb, but there was no bloom. "That's all right," I said, viewing myself as a patient child. "I looked forward to next year's bloom. Next year came, and there was not even any foliage. Once I had dug down, I found the rotted remains of my bulb. It had died. I was horticulturally scarred! (Generally this receives a few laughs.) Some serious questions arose about why this had happened, whether or not I had done anything wrong, and if anything could be done in the future. My quest for knowledge led me to realize that some bulbs were not meant to come back every year, that they were annuals to be enjoyed once and that was it. I found an appreciation for such bulbs. However, I thought to myself, 'Surely there must be bulbs that do come back every year, bulbs that don't need to be dug every year and that will grow, multiply, and bloom in warmer climates.'"
That is now the introductory story I tell to gardening groups. The red of that first tulip is still in my mind, and I connect it with falling in love with gardening. I also connect it with other things, such as a peaceful afternoon, my mom, and of course the beginnings of my business. Nine years after my tulip encounter I entered my first horticulture class at a junior college in Bakersfield. One transfer and four years later, I graduated with a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University in College Station. I was about to be introduced to a world that I couldn't dream existed and thrown into a flower bulb industry to face many personal trials.
To begin either a quest or an adventure, we need someone to push us out the door. That person for me was Bill Welch. After a couple of weeks thinking about and writing that early business plan project, I knocked on Bill's office door. He was a professor who was considered an authority on heirloom plants, including bulbs. I did not expect what happened after he had listened carefully to my plan. He responded with pure and excited encouragement. I had never felt such validation before. I asked for another visit, and he welcomed it.
While a horticulture student at Texas A&M, I also participated in the military tradition of the school as a member of the Corps of Cadets, with about two thousand full-time cadets who lived in dorms on campus. Cadets wear the uniforms that the army wore in WWII, have a complex student leadership structure, and live with the disciplined life you would expect of such an organization—waking up for runs in the morning, marching to meals, living in close quarters in the dorms, and so on. I was in this organization but found time to work in the greenhouses during the day. My nickname among the guys was an obvious choice: "Flower."
In school, I often stood in the back of classrooms so I wouldn't fall asleep. It was poor manners for anybody, much less a cadet in uniform, to fall asleep in the middle of a lecture. In one such class the horticulture professor spoke about possible ideas for the main project of the senior-level course, and I was listening because the task was essential for graduation. "The business plan could be to grow trees, perennials, open a tissue-culture lab, anything nursery/garden related, or it could be about bulbs." Flower bulbs had always been at the root of my love of horticulture.
As I walked from class to the dorms, new thoughts swirled in my head. While waiting for an afternoon Corps meeting to start, I mentioned my business plan to sell flower bulbs to some of the guys with me. Slightly surprised, one looked at me with a sheepish smile and asked, "What?" A few others asked some complimentary questions, but then it was time to begin our meeting. We finished the training run and broke for dinner. That evening in the dorms, I kept my confession to a few of my closer senior friends. They asked if I was serious. "Yeah, I guess so. I just need to look at it, but I think I might really do it."
To look at the numbers was to become depressed. I used limited information to run the numbers for the business plan. All I really had was the National Gardening Survey and some leftover statistical books I had taken home with me from Washington, D.C., after a brief summer tenure with the US Department of Agriculture. Flower bulbs since the 1950s had done extremely well, but in 1995 we began to see a sharp decline in the industry. In fact, every year since 1995, sales have decreased by 3 percent annually and have to this date not recovered. How this has affected Dutch and US farmers and US bulb businesses is harder to say. Many bulb businesses are still privately owned, and nobody on the outside looking in really knows there is a problem until the businesses go bankrupt.
In my sleep I began to turn the numbers over, trying to comprehend the unknown and come to conclusions. I had several more visits with Bill. My thoughts were moving out of the theoretical to the practical, and he began offering some advice. He gave me names of farmers, historic associations, contacts, horticulturists, etc. that I had to visit, see, and know before I could ever hope to embark on such a mission. As my last visit with Bill before Christmas break concluded, I did not realize that he was doing more than ushering me out of his office; he had just nudged me into my first bulb adventure.
That spring break I took a road trip to begin meeting people and asking them questions, and I also began to call world sources for bulbs and tell them what I wanted to do. The responses of larger sources were grim: "I don't think there is a market for those bulbs!" or "There is no way you can farm those bulbs and make a living." I began to doubt the possibility of such a business, but there were glimmers of hope here and there on that trip. As I drove around Texas that senior year in the spring of 2004, I sometimes found myself on old country roads. It was on this trip that I first noticed the sparks of color in the old pastures, where homes used to stand but were long gone, and lines of daffodils bloomed to mark old foundations, garden beds, and driveways. These were the bulbs I fell in love with and that I needed; these old bulbs were the future of what would become the Southern Bulb Company.
I was hopeful about my idea and upon graduation hung up my uniform and traded it for the muddy jeans that would be indicative of my life as a bulb collector. My new nickname among those in the industry was becoming "Bulb Boy," perhaps a step up from "Flower."
Collecting bulbs and stories, I knocked on doors, made phone calls, and tromped around pastures, woods, and roadsides. There was still something missing: a tulip. Maybe, just maybe, as I transitioned into a life of searching for bulbs and living in a little red cabin by a lake, I would find the answer to the red tulip of my youth. Could I actually find a tulip that would come back year after year? Would I find it along with other heirloom bulbs in an abandoned site? If I did find it, would other people be able to grow it?
It was very nice to have my older brother, John, with me at the beginning of my business. He is someone I have always looked up to, and he remains my best friend. He went on many of the early adventures of bulb hunting with me, such as one winter morning in 2005.
We left in John's midnight blue Ford truck, its headlights piercing through the early-morning darkness. It was a cold Texas February morning, a morning that was ushering in a cold front. Wind and a high overcast sky yielded a little rain, which tried to hinder the vehicle's progress as it slid through sleepy country towns. Inside the truck, climate controlled, the radio on faintly in the background, all was well. In my famous manner and to John's chagrin, I quickly fell asleep.
There was the Bulb Boy, twisted and contorted in such a manner as to make the thought of someone being able to sleep, and sleep soundly no less, impossible. John was forced to rehearse the directions in his mind again as we approached the town where our potential find was awaiting. In the back of the truck were the tools modified for the trade of adventure and bulb hunting—special shovels, picks, crates, and gloves.
As the first rays of morning light began to illuminate the backs of the clouds, I finally began to stir, subconsciously knowing that we were closing in on the town where the prize lay close at hand. A few turns led us past very inviting diners, but we knew that what awaited us was a cold, drizzly morning full of physical labor. As we drove over crushed gravel, we passed chain-link fences and abandoned cars on cinder blocks that had replaced white picket fences and manicured gardens. Finally, the truck stopped, and the only words that came to me were, "There they are!"
We both sat in the truck longer than we should, taking in as much heat as we could before going outside. Finally, John watched as I opened the door and walked to the back of the truck for my tools. We stepped out of the truck into deafening silence. There were no birds chirping ... no sound of life. We could hear only the wind and the light frost crunching beneath our feet. We both walked cautiously toward the "abandoned" home, knowing that many of these homes, dilapidated as they are, can still be refuge to folks eking out lives for themselves. No one was there, and the address confirmed that this was the house where we received permission to dig.
John followed my footsteps in the frost to the side of the house where the contrast in colors on the ground became much clearer—vibrant emerald greens and sapphire blues. The frost on the foliage and petals began to glisten in the emerging morning light. The scene is the same all across the South in the two to three winter months, and to be clear, the "South" generally includes the southern US states and Texas. At first glance, it looked like just an abandoned home, but in it and around it were life, art, and beauty. The blooms, fragrance, and generations of gardeners represented by those flowers bring warmth among the frost. This warmth is what infuses life into the crowds I speak to, putting smiles on strangers' faces by continually finding blooms amid bleakness. These flowers are eternal optimists. John, a commercial pilot for Delta, began to see the art and realized the magnitude of the life project that this was about to become.
My transition from college life, my move to the cabin in East Texas, and some of these very first bulb hunts all occurred in the fall/winter of 2004. In the late spring of 2005, a year into the business, my brother continued to believe in me. Considering he was a commercial pilot, I don't know why this should have instilled any confidence in my plan. He offered to help me plant the field that year to assist with my increasing workload. A historic garden group called needing a speaker, and my talk, one of my first speaking engagements, fell on the day we had set aside for planting. John sent me on my way and said he would take care of the planting. What a relief!
I needed this help; I was exhausted. Nobody wanted to repeat the mistake from the year before—I had planted the newly rescued bulbs too shallow. The 104-degree-, full-sun-, no-rain July killed many of them. The bulbs were not as foolproof as I had thought. Most bulbs, like daffodils, need to be planted about two to three times the height of the bulb below the soil surface. Some bulbs, like crinum and amaryllis (Hippeastrum), are different, but most fall-planted/spring-blooming bulbs can be planted according to this rule. Unfortunately, the rule is sometimes misapplied, and we have had several customers dig holes two feet deep for their larger crinum bulbs.
As I arrived at my talk, John called:
"Hey, Chris. It's John."
"Hey," I responded from the little historic center where I was about to speak.
"Got the bulbs planted."
"Great! Thank you, thank you."
"No problem. We planted them a foot and a half deep."
"Okay," I responded, my voice changing ever so slightly as I drew out this word just a little longer.
It was my brother I was speaking to, and he of course caught my tone. I had betrayed my anguish, my despair, all in an instant. We would never be able to completely harvest these bulbs at that depth unless we spent ten minutes on each bulb excavating them with a crew. I quickly tried to recover, expressing my thanks so he would not feel bad. It was a problem, but many of the bulbs did survive. I now can tell audiences that the bulbs are pilot-proof!
We both kept our energy and enthusiasm high. John was extremely adamant about some things, and one of those was having a tulip. My enthusiasm to find a red tulip started me on this adventure, but after more disappointments I felt compelled to explain to my brother that tulips don't do well in Texas. I had already had my bad experience as a child. Why embark on another disappointment? John's excitement persevered and went with us on a trip to visit a well-known horticulturist in the small East Texas town of Center.
Most small Texas towns have a Mexican food restaurant. Some are better than others, some serve margaritas, and others are in dry counties or just could not afford the liquor license.
Excerpted from The Bulb Hunter by Chris Wiesinger, William C. Welch. Copyright © 2013 Chris Wiesinger and William C. Welch. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Bulb Hunter Chris Wiesinger 1
Introduction The Cabin 3
Chapter 1 A Little Red Tulip 11
Chapter 2 People Are Like Crinums 24
Chapter 3 Lilies and Bulbs That Are Called Lilies 43
Chapter 4 Rain Lilies 66
Chapter 5 Spider Lilies Say "Louisiana," and Oxbloods Say "Texas" 78
Chapter 6 Our Most Valuable Bulbs: Roman Hyacinths, Byzantine Gladiolus, and Hardy Amaryllis 98
Chapter 7 Irises, Rock Garden, and Fischer 121
Chapter 8 Seasons Filled with Daffodils 133
Chapter 9 The Cabin Becomes a Home 146
The Bulb Hunter's Bulbs William C. Welch 159
A Primer 161
Bulbs in the Evolution of a Garden William C. Welch 227
A Louisiana Country Garden: Mangham 229
A Texas City Garden: Pebble Creek 251
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