It must have been some quarter of a century ago in April when I was driving down the hill on West Wood Street west of the court square. A patch of bright mauve (an oxymoron?) caught my eye in a front lawn. The grass was almost obliterated with little star-shaped flowers of pale blue or, more, mauve. Such a pretty word for a such a pretty flower.
Where had they been all my life? I had never seen anything to resemble them. I stopped and asked the matron of the home if I could dig a few roots. As most real gardeners do, she said something like “get all you want.”
I had read advice for such a circumstance that said don’t be stingy to yourself. I wasn’t. I found that the roots were actually little bulbs and upon digging (they were only a couple of inches deep) soon had a sack full of them. They carried a definite but pleasant onion scent.
A little research revealed I had come in possession of Ipheion uniflorum, commonly (rather, uncommonly; they are certainly not common here) called spring starflower or springflower. Those bulbs became the fountainhead of hundreds of progeny which have become signature plants at our garden for these many years. The specific epithet uniflorum would be translated “single flower” (uni: one) but that is misleading. While only one flower appears on a single stem, a sizable clump will yield numerous flowers on numerous stems.
Those were planted in our orchard, so called, that, at that time, grew some fruit trees that have since deteriorated and been succeeded by more ornamental ones. The starflowers took off like a house afire and never looked back. There also are in the orchard environs crocuses (of which I have written betimes), daffodils, Spanish bluebells, narcissus, ajuga and numerous others. The starflowers have outdone them all in tenacity, and have been transplanted into some of our mixed borders, where they make a show in April, quietly die down with no ill effect later in the summer, then dependably reappear the next year. I have also found what must be seedlings in a vacant field next door, apparently sown by birds.
Why the starflowers are so unknown is beyond me. A few mail order bulb companies carry them but they are never seen in retail markets here or even in larger cities. The usual pale blue or mauve is the color of the straight species, but there are named varieties with deeper blue or white flowers. None have proven to be as reliable as the species.
Almost as cheap as crocus, most people can afford at least 100, which will multiply into thousands in that quarter of a century. They are a naturalizing dream, the foliage being so unobtrusive it can be mowed down a short time after bloom.
Spring starflowers are natives of South America, particularly Argentina and Uruguay, and are rated hardy to zone 5. They are naturalized in Great Britain, France, and even half a world away in Australia and New Zealand.
The oniony smell I mentioned is inherited honestly, for they are surely related to onions. The roots and bulbs are said to be edible, but I can’t fathom wasting enough of them for hamburger relish.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack – Order aphelion bulbs as soon as you can. Have them shipped in October.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.