When talking about flowering bulbs and perennials, common names often invite unwelcome detours of the mind. A classic example is the association of gladiolus with Dame Edna Everage and garish cultivars that appear in garden centres every winter. In that case, the name of an entire genus has been reduced to a common name that limits collective perception of a highly diverse array of species (many of which bear refined, orchid-like flowers).
Grape hyacinth is another example of this. The classic image of Muscari is the commonly-planted, blue-flowered Muscari armeniacum; a diminutive species that manages to last well beyond the lifetimes of gardeners (and even buildings) in many places around the country. That was the case on the Wairarapa roadside pictured above, where its presence may be the sole remaining trace of a former garden adjoining an interesting native remnant within farmland.
Whilst M. armeniacum never truly becomes an environmental nuisance and offers seasonal colour, it is also one of the least interesting members of a fascinating genus. From our standpoint, the most intriguing species belong to the subgenus (or genus, depending on one’s taxonomic position) Leopoldia, whilst the two-tone flowers of Muscari muscarimi, Muscari latifolium and Muscari macrocarpum all merit wider attention.
There are around 40 species of Muscari (including Leopoldia) occupying a natural range extending from northern Africa to Europe and western Asia – with a particular concentration of species in the eastern Mediterranean.
At the point in time that we decided to include cultivation of flowering geophytes within these plant profiles, there was discussion about which species should be the first. Debate was short-lived; perhaps because the mesmerising flowers of Muscari (syn. Leopoldia) comosum were flaunting their wares amidst rare native meadow grasses at just the right moment.
That said, the tassel hyacinth (as it is commonly known) is a fine example of the kinds of bulbs that we often favour within our projects, for its beauty is worn lightly. Its unusual flowering form arises from the contrast between the lower, brownish, fertile flowers and the more highly coloured sterile flowers that form the ‘tassels’. Despite having been grown for decades within New Zealand, this species (along with 2 other members of subgenus Leopoldia; M. weissii and M. tenuiflorum) has become rare in cultivation.
M. comosum has a very wide natural distribution (from southern Europe to Iran) and some variation in form occurs across that range1. This species is common in well-drained meadows and disturbed, rocky ground; including the ancient ruins of Persepolis (as noted by C. & B. Gardner in their work on Mediterranean floras2). In some parts of its natural range (including Italy, Greece and Iran), the bulbs have been utilised as a food source for millennia – thereby taking on a degree of cultural significance.
We’re not putting them in our sandwiches around here yet (especially given the preparation required to make them suitable for ingestion), but we are interested in the role that this elegant species can play over several weeks in spring within naturalistic plantings.
Within the experimental garden surrounding our studio, we have 3 accessions of this species, including a distinct form from Morocco considered to have a particularly robust habit. Tassel hyacinth registers well in the midst of the diaphanous flowerheads of two species from the erstwhile genus Dichelachne (now known as Pentapogon inaequiglumis and P. crinitus) – as one small study towards our wider research into ways in which responsible flowering exotics can amplify the appeal of under-utilised members of our native flora.