Gardening: Bulbs with disreputable roots

The trend for wild flowers has led the less scrupulous to raid the woods for the real thing; and they could turn up at a car boot sale near you, says Michael Leapman
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Planting plots and pots with spring bulbs is such a comforting autumn ritual that it is hard to believe it could be tainted with controversy. Yet in gardening little is as benign as it seems. In recent years, environmentalists have alerted us to the growing practice of wild specimens being dug up from woods and meadows, both here and overseas, which seriously threatens the long-term survival of species.

Three flowers are mainly involved. Cyclamen and snowdrops are dug from Turkish hillsides, then sold to European distributors who ask no questions. Closer to home, thousands of native bluebells have been lifted from woods in the last few years by opportunistic entrepreneurs and sold to gardeners, often at car boot sales. Some avoid the middle man by going out with a spade and helping themselves in the wild.

A reader tells me that in the Harrogate district of Yorkshire, whole woods have been stripped of their bluebells. Wild orchids, cowslips and daffodils have also been targets. Police have asked people to note down the numbers of diggers' cars.

"There's a walk by a disused railway track that I often use with my dogs," says the reader. "Usually it's a mass of bluebells but this year there were hardly any. When I looked and saw these holes, I thought it was rabbits. But when I read in the local paper about people taking bluebells, I realised what had happened."

Bulb rustling has been on the increase because of a change in gardening fashion. In the model gardens of the big summer flower shows at Chelsea, Hampton Court and across the country, wild flowers have been all the rage since the start of the decade. Sometimes they can be difficult to grow from seed: fully formed and unprotected, they amount to a temptation that is hard to resist. But apart from being unethical and illegal, do- it-yourself bulb hunting is seldom worth the effort. The modest native bluebell can get lost in the average garden: they need to be massed beneath woodland trees for their full, ravishing effect.

Rupert Bowlby, a specialist bulb merchant in Reigate, Surrey, never handles material of suspect origin and says he has now stopped selling native bluebell bulbs altogether. "Either they fail in the garden, or they like it so much that they override everything else. The only one I sell now is the Spanish bluebell." Resembling a diminished hyacinth, it comes in several pale colours and is much happier in a garden context.

Cyclamen and snowdrops nearly always perform better from stock grown in nurseries, or on managed estates, than from corms and bulbs ripped from the wild. Major suppliers insist that they have safeguards in place to ensure that their stock's credentials are impeccable.

Unwins of Histon, Cambridgeshire, do go to Turkey for some of their snowdrops, especially the popular large-flowered elwesii, but the bulbs are cultivated on local farms, not on the surrounding hills. The same is true of their newly introduced winter aconites, whose yellow flowers contrast vividly with the snowdrops' white ones.

"All Unwins' snowdrops are nursery grown," says Alan Vaughan, the firm's bulb manager. "Our cyclamen corms are produced in England and trials have shown that they establish much more readily than the large, old, over- dried corms taken from Turkish hillsides."

Jacques Amand, a bulb specialist based in Stanmore, north London, gives the same as-surance. "We deal with reputable suppliers in Holland and France who deal with reputable growers in Turkey. We go to them year after year so we know the farms are properly managed." Nearly all his cyclamens are grown from seed in Britain. He sells snowdrops as bulbs and "in the green", or with the leaves still on them. This is an expensive but reliable way of ensuring that they establish themselves.

While drifts of these low, carpet-style wild flowers represent one current trend in garden bulbs, another goes to the opposite extreme of size. For the last three or four years, no fashionable plot has been complete without a few giant alliums. Their round, mauve flower heads, sometimes the size of cricket balls, are held on tall stems, making dramatic focal points in a mixed bed.

Rupert Bowlby, a regular exhibitor at Chelsea, claims credit for starting the allium craze. "At Chelsea in 1993, I decided to show nothing but alliums, just to be different from the other bulb growers. I had more than 100 kinds on the stand. They created a lot of interest. People had never realised how varied alliums could be in terms of height and their different flowering times."

One of the largest alliums is giganteum, with heads up to six inches in diameter on six-foot stems. Another popular variety is Globemaster, whose flowers reach the same size as giganteum but on stems only half the height. It flowers in late May and lasts for up to six weeks. Left to ripen on the stem, it makes a splendid dried flower, but it is not recommended as a cut flower. The allium is a close relative of the onion, and shares its smell.

Smaller varieties may grow only about eight inches high but come in a wider range of colours, including yellow. A select range of alliums features in the catalogue of Bees of Chester, an historic gardening name that has just returned to the bulb market after several years' absence.

Jacques Amand's sales figures for the season so far show just how popular alliums have become. "A few years ago we were lucky if we sold 200 Globemaster bulbs a year. This year we've sold 7,500 and we're almost out of stock." Increased sales also mean that the price has also fallen dramatically. Expect to pay around pounds 5 per bulb.

Not that the allium explosion has affected demand for standard bulb favourites such as daffodils, tulips and lilies. Grown in containers, they still provide unrivalled spring and summer colour for patio gardeners. Unwins reports an increased demand from people with larger gardens for big bags of daffodil bulbs to naturalise on lawns and in meadows.

Tulips have suffered in the past from being seen as slightly naff, largely because of the unimaginative mass plantings that local authorities traditionally inflicted on parks and other public spaces. Neither did E A Bowles, a leading garden trendsetter in the first half of this century, help their cause when he famously likened them to a "gardening bilious attack".

You see less of such garish horrors today, partly because local authorities have had to cut down on gardening of all kinds, partly because many younger municipal gardeners have been trained in the rudiments of modern taste and design. Tulips also have a better image, enhanced by the arrival of improved varieties with intriguing colour combinations and petal shapes.

There are new developments in daffodils and narcissi, too, including varieties with pink-tinted flowers. But beware: in some cases the pink is so subtle that it is hard to detect.

As for what will take over from the allium when the pendulum of horticultural fashion swings again, Jacques Amand has noticed an increased demand for eremurus, sometimes known as foxtail lilies. Their long spikes, covered with a mass of flowers, make them superficially resemble a red-hot poker and they come in red-hot colours such as orange and yellow.

At this mid-point of the bulb-planting season, suppliers are already running short of popular varieties of all flowers. If you haven't bought yours yet, it may be a question of ferreting around garden centres and chain stores to find what you want. Londoners can join the throng at the weekly Sunday morning flower and plant market at Columbia Road, where number of stalls specialise in bulbs at keen prices. The only problem is that, once again, you can never be quite certain of their source.

To order catalogues and for general stockist information, telephone: Unwins 01223 236236; Jacques Amand 0181 427 3968; Rupert Bowlby 01737 642221; Bees of Chester 01945 466640