Scilla bifolia, etc

John Grimshaw
Thu, 23 Mar 2006 23:17:56 PST
Scilla bifolia is very widespread in Europe, and can grow in surprising
places. I've seen it emerging from under melting snow with Crocus
pelistericus in the Greek mountains at the end of June and in March
flowering in the verge of a German autobahn lay-by with Corydalis solida.
One might be a more exalted situation than the other, but I think the
surprise of seeing it in the unpromising German site gave the greater

The trade form is rather small and dull, as Jim McKenney mentioned, and the
trade 'Rosea' is one of those sad jokes perpetrated by the bulb growers. At
least they are so innocuous as to be no problem even if they do spread a
little. The version really worth growing is S. bifolia 'Praecox' (this name
may not be strictly correct). As the name suggests, it is early, usually
with the snowdrops, but it's advantage is that it is about 3 times bigger
than normal and has many more flowers of a particularly rich blue. The stems
are also usually dark red. It's a really choice plant but not commercially
available, which is a great shame. When happy it self-sows quite freely and
occasionally can be seen making carpets in older gardens. It occasionally
varies to a frankly dull amethyst colour and there is a gorgeous clear pink
version, but this is desperately slow to increase.

As for Scilla sibirica, this seems to be variable in its persistence and
spreadability. There's a patch here at Colesbourne that has evidently
persisted for decades, and is now spreading slowly with the amelioration of
the mowing regime. I have never seen this species more at home than in
Massachusetts; there are huge drifts at the Arnold Arboretum and around some
of the houses in Concord, to the extent where it looks like an invasive

I have never seen seedlings from Scilla mischtschenkoana, but am fond of it
for its glacial blue. There are some good patches of it here now, from bulbs
planted in 2003, looking glorious in the turf at the moment.

The main herbaceous border here has been infested by Chionodoxa forbesii for
over 100 years, apparently derived from the bulbs introduced by Henry John
Elwes in the 1880s: he wrote about the it in his horticultural memoir and
the display continues to this day: it will burst into flower any day now
(the temperatures having finally risen). It's a 'weed' nobody could really
complain about, being above ground for barely two months and soon
disappearing under any taller plants. I'd like to get it going in the wood
here to emulate the March Bank at Winterthur.

The hybrid xChionoscilla allenii is often perfectly fertile and can sow
itself abundantly, as it does in my parents' garden, with seedlings varying
quite a bit. There are named clones, such as 'Fra Angelico' which seems to
be sterile and is a nicely proportioned compact plant. James Allen
(1832-1906) must have had such an interesting garden - just think of the
things named after him: Galanthus x allenii, Anemone nemorosa 'Allenii' and
the xChionoscilla, and the products of his selection work such as Galanthus
'Merlin', 'Robin Hood' and 'Magnet'.

John Grimshaw

Dr John M. Grimshaw
Garden Manager, Colesbourne Gardens

Sycamore Cottage
Nr Cheltenham
Gloucestershire GL53 9NP

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