These days, you’re likely to find more than just grass growing in many Canadian lawns. This is especially true for those of us who live in provinces where cosmetic herbicides have been banned for almost a decade, and where completely weed-free lawns are rare. But attitudes have shifted, and a few dandelions here and there no longer illicit the horrified gasps they might have done in the past.
But in addition to weedy, uninvited invasives, there are a host of beautiful bulbous flowers that embellish lawns in early spring and then politely retreat underground by the time the grass needs mowing. My own lawn is studded with clumps of early daffodils, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica cvs.), white hyacinths (pink- and blue-flowered types look better in borders and pots) and species tulips.
Many of these early bulbs are ideal for challenging areas where turfgrass growth is already sparse due to deciduous shade, competitive tree roots or moist, mossy areas that are slow to dry out in spring. The southeast corner of my garden boasts all three of these limiting factors, and that is where I grow several thriving patches of the Turkestan species tulip (Tulipa turkestanica, Zone 3) which are blooming their heads off right now.
The Turkestan tulip is always the first tulip to break bud in my Zone 5a garden. It has grey-green foliage and branching flowering stems that bear up to 12 star-shaped ivory-white flowers with yellow-orange centres, although three or four blooms per stem is the norm. The flower buds all open simultaneously — which makes for an exuberant show, although they remain closed on cold, wet, overcast days when sensible insect pollinators stay at home.
As with all tulips, the opening and closing of flowerheads is achieved by adding cells to the base of the flower (to close) or to the tips (to open) in reaction to heat and light levels. The end result is that mature tulip flowers are always larger than newly opened ones, and the one-inch (2.5-cm)-wide flowers of my Turkestan tulips will have doubled in size before they drop their tepals (i.e., petals) in a couple of weeks.
Almost half of the 120 or so species (or “botanical”) tulips — including Tulipa turkestanica — call the Tian Shan in central Asia home, and this is where German plant hunter extraordinaire Eduard von Regel (1815-92) discovered it growing in 1873. Von Regel had moved to St. Petersburg in 1855 and eventually became director of the Russian Imperial Botanical Garden, a position that enabled him to participate in far-flung plant-collecting expeditions; by the end of his career he had described and named an astonishing 3,000 new species.
I often think of Herr von Regel when I bend down to admire my 10-inch (25-cm)-tall Turkestan tulips, and speculate what insects pollinate them in their homeland as I catch a whiff of their rather putrid-smelling flowers. Unlike modern cultivars, their three inner tepals are almost twice as wide as their three outer ones, and despite the efforts of plant hybridizers to use the Turkestan tulip in the breeding of new multi-stemmed varieties, T. turkestanica refuses to cross-breed with large-flowered modern cultivars — or as tulip expert Anna Pavord puts it, “Once more, the tulip spurns the pimp.”
I grow several other species tulips in my turfgrass, and another favourite is the lady tulip (T. clusiana) with its deep pink-striped white flowers — not unlike the “Canada 150” tulip. Lady tulips have been in cultivation since the early 1600s, and worthy cultivars such as ‘Lady Jane’ and ‘Peppermintstick’ are often easier to obtain than the species form.
In another challenging spot — beneath a malevolent, shallow-rooted Norway maple — I’ve been experimenting with grape hyacinths (Muscari cvs.). This is only their second spring, but already they seem to be spreading contentedly in the dry, exhausted soil where even turfgrass fears to tread. Two years from now, I hope that the view from my front window will be a solid sea of blue.
What’s blooming in your lawn this spring?
Do you grow spring-flowering bulbs in your Canada 150 lawn?