On holiday in Garda by the side of Lake Garda in northern Italy recently, I did what one does in any of the several smallish lakeside towns which attract so many visitors.
I walked round the weekly market. At this time of the year, it is possible to say, “I walked round the market”, for the very large number of high-summer holiday-makers make walking round the market impossible during the height of the tourist season, when one can really only shuffle round, hemmed in on every side by other shuffling stall-gazers. Now that the frenzy of summer has passed, one can actually stop and look properly at what is on offer at any of the many stalls. And I must add at this point that this is not a haggling market; this is a pukka market, the successor to the mediaeval markets with which our ancestors were familiar, a market where many of the stalls are those of specialist retailers offering goods for which there is insufficient demand to support a shop in any one of the towns, but for which there is sufficient demand round the lake to give a travelling retailer a living. There is, of course, also tourist tat in high summer, tat which becomes much less common as summer gives way to autumn. Alleluia!
Anyway, with the coming of autumn came the stallholders selling plants for autumn planting – particularly bulbs. And one stall which caught my eye had a wonderful selection of bulbs, all of which looked to be in superb condition, sufficiently good-looking as to cause me to consider whether I should buy some to bring home for my own garden. They were scillas, plants with a name with which I was vaguely familiar but which I was sure didn’t grow from bulbs like these. I was right about that, for the scillas which I was thinking of are what we call bluebells and these bulbs are commonly(?) called ‘squills’. To be more precise, the majority of the bulbs which I was admiring were actually Siberian squills … Scilla siberica to use its proper botanical name … which is a member of a family of an indeterminate number of somewhere between 50 and 80 bulb-forming perennial herbs in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Scilloideae - botanists are still resolving issues about how many plants are really members of this family. The members of the family are native to woodlands, subalpine meadows and seashores throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle-East: but those which had gripped my attention were originally from … no, not Siberia, despite their name … Russia and the Caucasus region. As you would expect from any plant hailing from that part of the world, Siberian squills are very hardy and vigorous. They produce … in the words of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) … ‘dainty spikes of nodding, bell-shaped, blue flowers in early spring, above slender, strappy leaves. Siberian squills are perfect for naturalising in lawns and areas of semi-shade, particularly beneath deciduous shrubs and trees.’
Well, gentle reader, it might be advantageous to have an estate with gracious, rolling lawns and generous woodland areas in which to display these plants, but the RHS has no such reservations, advising simply that the gardener ‘plants bulbs in bold drifts and leaves them to naturalise. Scilla siberica self-seeds readily and will quickly develop into large clumps. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM).’ The bulbs should be planted in September, October and November, preferably in dappled shade with a southern or western exposure and are not particularly fussy about what type of soil they are grown in. Expect these very small shrubs to produce bright blue flowers between March and early May; and be grateful that they are generally resistant to garden pests and diseases and do not need to be pruned. Now, where did I put these bulb catalogues?