Mary Sue Ittner
Sun, 11 May 2003 22:40:16 PDT
Dear All,

We are very fortunate to have an introduction to our topic of the week from 
Martin Philippo who responded to my request for an introduction even though 
he was not a member of our forum. He has joined so he can answer any 
questions you might have about this genus. He also provided me with some 
pictures to add to the wiki:…
More pictures can be found on his web site (see below.)

Mary Sue

I think we are all familiar with the humble grape hyacinth. These 
attractive flowers bloom in many gardens, together with daffodils and 
tulips.  My intention is to inform you in this article about the not so 
well known species.

My name is Martin Philippo. I live in Noordwijkerhout, the Netherlands, in 
the heart of the flower bulbs district. I grew up on my father's nursery, 
surrounded by hyacinths, crocus, tulips and of course Muscaris. Fourteen 
years ago I left the company but my love for bulbs has never left me. I 
still work in the business, inspecting products for Darwin Plants, a well 
know exporter of flower bulbs and perennials. In my spare time I have a 
collection of Muscaris and run a website about the genus.

The most well known Muscari is Muscari armeniacum. This grape hyacinth is 
sold by the millions throughout the world. It is the most versatile of all, 
useable for gardens, cut flowers and pots. It is however not the oldest of 
them all, it was described by Mr Baker in 1882. Before that horticulturists 
and gardeners already knew about Muscari muscarimi, which goes back as far 
as 1554.  One of its synonyms is Muscari moschatum, to which we thank the 
genus name of Muscari. The scent of this species is very much like musk and 
very sweet. (Latin: muscus = musk like)  Muscaris can be found in their 
natural habitats around the Mediterranean Sea from Spain all the way round 
to Morocco. Many species originate from Turkey but some can be found in the 
Caucasus.  Up north they grow in vineyards in Austria and France. They are 
even found in the USA as garden escapees. Some grow on dry mountain slopes, 
some in (mountain) meadows.  There is a Muscari for every situation.
The genus Muscari consists of approximately 60 different species, divided 
into four subgenera. These subgenera, sometimes called groups, are:

  Botryanthus group (Sometimes called the true Grape Hyacinths)
These all have pale blue to blackish-blue flowers (apart from the 
occasional albino), usually globose to obovoid in shape with a very 
constricted mouth; they are carried in racemes which are compact and dense 
with the flowers almost touching, although they may become spaced out later 
on. The colour of the perianth lobes ('teeth') should be noted. These are 
mostly easy to cultivate and include some of the best-known species such as 
M. armeniacum and M. neglectum. They flower in early spring.

Pseudomuscari group
These have, like the above, flowers in shades of blue, often pale or rather 
bright blue, and are mostly smallish plants with fairly densely flowered 
racemes. The characteristic feature is that the bell-shaped perianth is not 
constricted at the mouth. They are also early spring-flowering and easily 
cultivated. In this group you will find species like M. azureum, M. 
discolor, M. inconstrictum and M. parviflorum.

These are on the whole much taller plants than the above two groups with 
the flowers more widely spread on the raceme. The fertile flowers are 
longer, usually urn-shaped or tubular with angular 'shoulders' just below 
the constricted mouth. The colour is usually some shade of whitish, 
yellowish, greenish or brown, never blue, although there is often a 
conspicuous tuft of bright violet, blue or pinkish sterile flowers at the 
apex of the raceme. The colour of the perianth lobes, which are very small, 
is important in distinguishing the species. The species of the 
Leopoldia-group flower later than those of the above two groups, in late 
spring or early summer. They are relatively easy to cultivate in warm sunny 
situations. In this group: M. comosum, M. cycladium, M. dionysicum, M. weissii.

Muscarimia group
There are only two species in this group. They have large bulbs with thick 
fleshy perennial roots which delve down into the rocky ground of their 
natural habitat in Turkey and the east Aegean region. The stout stems carry 
racemes of large elongated flowers, which have six projections just below 
the mouth, giving a corona-like effect. They have a strong fragrance and 
are either yellow or whitish, faintly tinted green or blue, with brown 
lobes which are so small that they are more like small teeth. Sterile 
flowers few, minute and violet, or none. Since they come from hot sun baked 
hillsides they are best grown in a bulb frame or alpine house in a deep pot 
to accommodate their strong roots.

The genus Muscari is suffering from lack of accurate name giving. Over the 
years many botanists and taxonomists have named and synonymised many 
species. In natural habitats variations occur and many of those variations 
have been given a species name. Later many of these species have been 
lumped together into another species, most noticeably in M. armeniacum and 
M. neglectum. Many of these variations are in my opinion very distinct and 
should be given the status of species. Confusion has also played its part. 
In the days of the big plant hunting, the 19th century, botanical 
descriptions were not always very accurate and communication wasn't as it 
is today. In some cases two people described one species and each gave it 
its own name.

Dividing the genus into four different subgenera is also worth discussion. 
Some taxonomists wish to split the genus Muscari into four different ones, 
others  are happy with the classification into subgenera. The whole genus 
is desperately in need of revision.

Muscaris can be used in many ways. At the famous Keukenhof Gardens in 
Lisse, Holland, I have seen them planted as a blue 'river', used en masse. 
This is truly the most spectacular display a Muscari lover can wish for. 
Planting more than 100,000 bulbs is of course not what we 'normal' 
gardeners can afford. Instead we buy our bulbs in amounts of 25 or 50. 
Plant these bulbs in groups in your border, accompanied by perennials like 
Draba, Primula or Doronicum. I like the combination with pink or red Phlox 
subulata . Please, avoid those square blocks, or worse: long straight 
rows.  Your Muscaris will look too unnatural and won't do your garden any good.

For a natural touch the bulbs can be planted in little groups of 3 or 5, in 
between other bulbs, perennials or even the lawn.

Muscaris prefer a neutral to alkaline soil although a slightly acid soil 
will usually be tolerated. Good drainage is essential.  All species like a 
sunny to semi-shady spot.  Planting depth should be, as with all bulbs, 
twice the height of the bulb. For naturalizing I would recommend a bit 
deeper, especially in colder areas. Winter hardiness is, by the way, not a 
problem; they will survive most cold winters.

Rock gardeners will get great value out of many Muscari species. Choose the 
ones that don't multiply too rapidly; otherwise the bulbs can get too 
invasive. Cultivars of Muscari armeniacum and Muscari neglectum are such 
rampant growers. For a touch of delicacy try Muscari pallens instead, or 
choose the bulbs of Muscari macrocarpum, for its bright yellow flowers and 
lovely sweet fragrance.

Other good rockery plants are: M. aucheri, M. azureum, M. bourgaei, M. 
latifolium, M. muscarimi or M. pseudomuscari.

Some gardeners and collectors grow their bulbs in a pot, in the glasshouse. 
Muscaris are ideal for this purpose as they can be kept dry during their 
dormant season this way.  Plant the bulbs in a deep pot, filled with a mix 
of sand, grit and multi purpose potting soil.  A small amount of 
fertiliser, like blood fish and bone meal, can be added. Needless to say 
the pots need holes for drainage.  The pots should be kept cold for at 
least 10 weeks, at a temperature of no more than 10 degrees. C (50 F). If 
your glasshouse is unheated the pots can stay in the glasshouse until the 
springtime. Remember bulbs planted in pots are more sensitive to frost, 
especially when not rooted properly.  Pots are best plunged in a sand bed 
so watering can be done from below and drying out won't be likely.  Give 
the bulbs a feed in springtime. Muscaris often form many bulblets and to 
keep bulbs of flowering size they have to kept well fed. In the glasshouse 
they enjoy full sun but keep the place shaded when the sun is too bright. A 
sudden boost of sunlight could trigger them to go dormant earlier.

Propagation of Muscaris can be done in two ways: bulblets and seeds. Most 
will form seed although some species require hand pollination with a fine 
brush. Hybrids of course won't come true from seed but this gives us an 
opportunity to do a bit of hybridising. Cross pollination doesn't happen 
very easily. I grow many species and cultivars close together, but hybrids 
don't occur often. Sow the seed in fall, in pots, thinly , and cover them 
with a thin layer of soil. The pots can be kept outside, protected from the 
severest frosts, under a pane of glass. In springtime the glass is removed. 
Grow the seedlings for two years in their pots, making sure they are not 
lacking food, sun and water. After that the formed bulblets can be planted 
out, either individually in pots or in a nursery bed. After three or four 
years bulbs will have grown to flowering size. Bulblets can easily be 
detached from the mother bulb in the summer, when it is dormant. Lift the 
bulbs, dry them for a week or two and gently take off the bulblets formed 
at the bottom of the bulb. After this the bulbs need drying again for two 
weeks to seal the wounds.  The bulblets can be grown as with young 
seedlings. Bulbs of flowering size can be had in two years, sometimes even 
in one.

I grow my Muscaris in the open ground in the sandy, free draining and 
alkaline soil we have here. I plant, lift and divide them every year.  Soil 
and growing conditions are ideal for Muscari growing here.

Grown under the right conditions Muscaris are easily grown without 
diseases.  On the Muscari pages some of the diseases that occur in Muscari 
are mentioned.  The most common is the Penicillium fungus, which 
predominantly attacks bulbs when they are lifted and not dried 
properly.  Prevention is 'easy'; store your dormant bulbs in a warm, dry 
and well ventilated place.  Watch your bulbs when you buy; check bags for 
any mouldy bulbs. Only buy bulbs that look healthy, wealthy and white.

For more about the genus Muscari, color photographs and descriptions of 
species and cultivars and other stuff: visit

Martin Philippo

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