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My New Fave Winter Bloomer

The purpose of houseplants (in winter) is to ameliorate the effects of cabin fever. The best houseplants for this purpose grow fast enough that you can see changes from day to day, and they also bloom–strengthening the illusion that actual gardening is taking place. Flowering bulbs are well-suited to the task–the tender ones that tolerate our artificially heated homes and the hardy ones that can be tricked into blooming early.

This winter I grew Madeiran Squill (Scilla madeirensis) for the first time.

The bulbs arrived November 9th, but I didn’t pot them up until December 14th.

I waited over a month to plant them, because I didn’t want them blooming before I needed them. I wanted them to bloom after the holidays, after my Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses were done. No instructions came with the bulbs, so I planted them with the soil just covering the tips of the bulbs. I’ve since read that you should leave the neck of the bulb exposed, so it doesn’t rot, but as you will see, mine did fine. (You can read more detailed instructions here.)

Scilla madeirensis emerging
In three weeks I could see visible growth.

At first it seemed like nothing was happening, and I hoped my bulbs weren’t rotting in the pot, but after three weeks the bulbs had sprouted with attractively spotted foliage.

Scilla madeirensis on the verge of blooming
In another week and a half, I could see buds.
In another week and a half, the first spike was half open.

In a little over six weeks, the bulbs went from newly-potted to beginning to bloom, a delightful contrast to the snow and cold outside.

scilla madeirensis in full bloom
Happily, the three bulbs opened sequentially, prolonging the show.
scilla madeirense in pot
The third flower seemed a little stunted.

The third flower didn’t really bloom. I’m not sure whether that’s due to my inconsistent watering, or something that happened before I received it. It never amounted to much, and it’s now dry and shriveled. The other two flowers spikes still look attractive, even though they’re past their prime. In another day or two I will cut the flowers off.

Madeiran squill checks all the boxes:

  • Easy to get started
  • Relatively quick to flower
  • Attractive foliage
  • Beautiful flowers

What’s not to like? They cost quite a bit more than hyacinths, but less than an amaryllis. However, an amaryllis is quite a bit bigger. I’m not sure if I will be able to grow these well enough that they will flower again next year. They will need as much sun as I can give them (which in the winter is a lot less than they get on Madeira) until they go dormant. And I suspect, like amaryllises, they will be on their own schedule next year and may bloom long before I want them to.

I’ve tried them all and found them lacking

I have yet to find the right spot to give hyacinths their faux-winter chill, so must resort to buying them pre-forced and almost blooming. I tried another variety of paperwhites this winter (‘Nir’), but my family still complained of the smell.

messy paperwhites
I have more success growing paperwhites in soil, but they get very leggy by the time they’re done blooming.

They also get so leggy that they’re no longer attractive, even while still in bloom. If you force them in water with some alcohol added, that stunts them and keeps them shorter. But I haven’t had as much successful bloom that way.

A flower a day keeps cabin fever at bay

So Madeiran squill is my new favorite way to keep cabin fever tolerable. And boy, do I have cabin fever. No wonder: Last year we had a thaw in mid-January and I could see snowdrops emerging. (No, not blooming–but at least out of the ground!) By January 29th of last year, my vernal witch hazel had blooms. On February 23rd the first winter aconite opened, and the next day snowdrops showed white, though they hadn’t opened.

This winter has been more unrelentingly winterish. It rarely gets above freezing, and another inch or two of snow falls several times a week. No reprieve, no little signs of hope. I try to remember that while winter was intermittent last year, it actually lingered a long time.

Snow–that stuck!–May 9, 2020.

We had snow in May that didn’t melt on contact. A week later it was summertime hot. I will gladly endure snow in February (where it belongs) if I can have a mild and mellow May. However, I don’t get a choice in the matter, do I?

So I nurture my hardy soul with indoor plants and take it one day at a time. As the Madeiran squill is waning, last year’s amaryllises are sending up flower stalks and the clivia is showing a bit of orange. The foliage plants are responding to increased daylight with new growth. Spring will get here, eventually.

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