Tell me a story: a review of Heirloom Bulbs for Today

Heirloom Bulbs for Today cover courtesy of Cherie Colburn

Call me jaded, but I am so over traditional gardening books, the ones which state in the most boring language possible:

  • Plant this here;
  • Do this particular design; or
  • Here is a laundry list of plants which grow in USDA Zones 3 to 7.

Instead, tell me a story. Make me want that heirloom iris rescued from an old Texas homestead, or the tomato which bears the name of a friend and colleague long ago.

Muscari neglectum. Photo courtesy of Chris Wiesinger

Chris Wiesinger, a/k/a the Bulb Hunter, and Cherie Colburn do just that in their book Heirloom Bulbs for Today. Unlike so many gardening books being published of late, Heirloom Bulbs is a big beautiful tome with loads of gorgeous photos. Many books are now being downsized due to printing costs which I understand. However, it’s nice to see generous macro photos along with landscapes in front of old homesteads and cemeteries to remind us of gardeners who have gone before, but who also had similar hopes and dreams.

Chris owns the Southern Bulb Company, and since 2005, he’s crafted his business by rescuing bulbs (with permission) from abandoned homes and farms throughout the south. With such a profession, you know there are going to be lots of stories. The South lends itself to storytelling and romanticism after all. Think of the great southern writers like Eudora Welty (my hands-down favorite), Reynolds Price, Clyde Edgerton and Tennessee Williams . . . the list is expansive. In southern literature, gardens often figure as part of the plot, or are at least play their part in set design.

Chris, Cherie and Loela taken at Chris' farm. Photo courtesy of Johan Kritzinger

In many places, this lovely book reads like good literature, and I’ve spent several evenings perusing its pages. All the factual information is here complete with botanical drawings of the bulbs by Loela Barry, a graduate of Texas A&M. The macro photographs of the bulbs were captured by Johan Kritzinger, who is Loela’s husband. Together they own JoLoe Art.

Chris is clearly in love with bulbs, especially those he can grow in northeast Texas where his farm is located. I’ve bought specialty bulbs from Chris over the years. He has always been extraordinarily kind, and in this book, it’s his kind voice that leads you down the path and into the story.

Lycoris radiata taken in Ft. Worth, TX by Dee Nash

The book opens with the superstars, those bulbs which will grow and bloom for most of us. Lycoris radiata, one of my favorites, is listed first. According to Chris, the best display of red spider lilies he’s ever seen is in the American Cemetery in Natchitoches, LA, where Steel Magnolias was filmed. It is these details peppered throughout the book which make you feel as though you’re riding with Chris’ in his old pickup with his faithful companion, his Weimaraner, Fischer.

Lest you fear there is no botanical information, don’t worry. Each bulb has a page devoted to bloom, foliage, bulb or corm type and care. The botanical drawings are situated on this page so you can compare the written word with them.

It was a special thrill for me when Chris and Cherie wrote of the Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells) growing at Eudora Welty’s home, now a National Historic Landmark. I’m not kidding when I say I love Welty’s work. Eudora Welty Complete Novels: The Robber Bridegroom, Delta Wedding, The Ponder Heart, Losing Battles, The Optimist’s Daughter (Library of America) are excellent with Delta Wedding and The Optimist’s Daughter being two of my favorites. In Delta Wedding, the word “garden” is mentioned at least eight times.

All of my favorite heirlooms are in this book, and it is a wonderful reference, but the stories, ah, the stories are what drew me in and kept me reading. Cherie did a great job getting those stories down on the page, and her style is engaging. Do you like books to weave a tale too?

Note: This book was sent to me for review by Bright Sky Press. I liked it very much, so I’m glad they did. I wish Chris every success, and he is available for speaking engagements too.


29 Comments

  1. Susan Haltom says:

    Dee, it is a pleasure to meet you via this blog, which was forwarded to me by the director of the Eudora Welty House. Since 1994 I have taken care of Miss Eudora’s garden, first meeting with her to learn about it and rescue it, then researching and restoring the garden to the way it looked from 1925- 1945, when it best reflected its creator’s vision.

    I am excited to tell you that we have just the book for you! One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place will be published this September by University Press of Mississippi.

    Our story of this American writer and her relationship with her garden begins during the first boom in American home gardening and unfolds against the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century. It is 304 pages, richly illustrated with never-published correspondence, excerpts, archival images and beautiful new color photographs of the restored Welty garden.

    We have sidebars about the use of fences, bottle trees, the color magenta, and other fascinating topics. We even have questions for book clubs, since our book deals with life issues and how they affect the garden, not how-to garden instructions. And of course Elizabeth Lawrence is in there!

    This story should be intriguing to most readers, whether or not they garden or read the literature of Eudora Welty. My co-author Jane Roy Brown and I hope you will check it out.

    Susan Haltom

    PS – great article on Chris and his nursery and book. He has wonderful heirloom offerings, many of which are in the Welty garden or in my own.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Susan, it’s so nice to meet you too. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out. I think Eudora Welty was a poet who wrote in prose. Her use of language was exquisite.

  2. Debbie says:

    I have loved “garden stories” since my childhood – Gardens are my “Happy Place”. I can’t wait to go find this book. You know how I like to plant- rustle, but knowing the history/story makes the plant much more of a treasure. My own garden faves are the ones I visit daily and can hear the voices of friends that have shared them with me. BTW: LOVE your photos. Deb

  3. We live in a 90-year-old house whose original owners were tremendous gardeners. Spring is a constant surprise at my house… we have thousands of flowers that bloom in waves all the way to June. Pink hyacinths, daffodils of many kinds, at least a dozen different irises, and several stray old tulips… plus old roses, mounds of sweet peas, a giant sprawling dogwood, and those old “surprise lillies” that grow foliage first, then throw up their pink trumpets later. I often wonder what the place looked like when she was here tending and planting things diligently. She must’ve been quite a determined gardener, as we live on a rocky hillside in the Ozarks, and even the smallest planting often requires a pickaxe or major excavation. I think I would love Chris’ book… thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Kimberly, how fortunate you are to live in such a place. I’d love to see it. Yes, I’m familiar with the beautiful, if rocky, Ozarks. My mother’s family are from there and central Illinois. Difficult soil, but such nice rainfall. I’m sure you would love Chris’ and Cherie’s book. It is very nice. Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you’ll come again soon.

  4. karen says:

    Hey Dee,
    Its me again, I was so surprised you know “My summer in a garden” and
    I don’t think I know Elizabeth Lawrence!
    Is she a current writer? Maybe I’ve read her work and don’t realize it? Huh…
    I’m going to have to check her out too,
    Have you read “Planthropology” by Ken Druse?
    Another favorite.
    Hope your weekend was good,
    Thanks again,
    karen
    glimpsesofglory-karen.blogspot.com/

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Karen, here is a link to Wing Haven Gardens’ biography of Elizabeth Lawrence. They are now the caretakers of Lawrence’s garden in Charlotte, NC. I was fortunate to visit her garden, and I’ve read all of her books except Lob’s Wood. I read most garden memoirs I find. They are my weakness. I have not read Planthropology. I should. I know Ken, but I haven’t had time to read it. There is also The Fruit Hunters by Adam Leith Gollner, an excellent read, as is The Brother Gardeners, by Andrea Wulf. I think I like the latter one most of all.

  5. mary says:

    I have irises that came from my grandmother’s garden and Vitex that were grown from seed from my great-grandmother’s trees. I love to see old homesteads in the country that still have old daffodils or irises.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Me too Mary. It is so much more meaningful when you know where your plants originally grew. My mother isn’t a gardener, but my grandmother was, and although she never gave me a plant, she gave me the knowledge and love to carry on her legacy. I’m so glad you have something of your family’s gardens too.

  6. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I’ve been saving my copy of the book to read on a hot summer afternoon. Chris is also a delightful and entertaining speaker: I had the pleasure of hearing him & Bill Welch (HEIRLOOM GARDENING IN THE SOUTH) talk at a local nursery. Which reminds me, I need to order the latter!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I will be looking over this one before I purchase bulbs in the fall. That’s for sure. I envy you that you got to hear both of them speak. I have Welch’s book on roses for the south. Would love to see Heirloom Gardening in the South too.

  7. I love the idea of a plant I’m growing being grown by someone a hundred years before, and I like even better knowing the name of the person who grew it or knowing something about the person for whom it was named.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Me too MMD. It makes the plant all the more special.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Elizabeth Lawrence and Eudora Welty were great friends.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I’d forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. commonweeder says:

    I suspect I couldn’t grow too many of these bulbs, but you do make me want to read the book. Stories are always irresistible.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Pat, you might be able to grow a few, but the stories are the best part.

  10. karen says:

    Hi Dee,
    One of my all time favorite books was written in 1873, “My Summer in a Garden”.
    The author, Charles Dudley Warner is informative, but also hysterical in his story telling of mishaps in the garden and his views about life.
    Even after several readings, I still find myself laughing out loud.
    Love a good book so thanks for the review, I look forward to checking it out!
    karen
    glimpsesofglory-karen.blogspot.com/

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Karen, I love that book. I also love almost all of Elizabeth Lawrence’s books, but Through the Garden Gate is my personal favorite.

  11. Leslie says:

    I so agree Dee…the story is the thing! Other than the Sunset Garden Book I read only garden ‘story’ books for a long time before I picked up any laundry list books. Maybe because so many don’t apply here. But the stories…they are always wonderful.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Leslie, since gardening is really about love, it would make sense that we must know the story. Laundry list books don’t apply here either. This state is rich with lots of different climates.

  12. Suzanne H says:

    I am a big fan of Chris’s and of Southern Bulb Company, but have not yet read this book. It keeps calling to me from Amazon, and after your review, I am sure I will answer the gardening siren’s call. I also love gardening books that tell a story, and enjoy finding out the history of the beautiful plants we often take for granted. Thanks! I really enjoy your blog, since both sides of this Texan’s family came from Tulsa many years ago.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Suzanne, I hope you answer the call, and you get the book. It was very enjoyable to read. Thanks so much for reading my blog. I appreciate it. Cool about your family. I love Texas too.

  13. Carol says:

    Same here. Tell me a good story about a plant and I will never forget it. I’m sure some of the bulbs included in the book wouldn’t live long in my garden but I sure would love to read the stories!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Well, I can’t say I’d never forget since I can’t remember much of anything, but know that many of the bulbs would work in a protected area of your garden my friend.

  14. ron tucker says:

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Chris when he was just starting out with his bulb business and what a fine person he is. Great article on him and his love of bulbs.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you so much Ron for reading. I met Chris too when he came to Oklahoma. He answered a question for me on a bulb I’d always wondered about. I doubt if he remembers, but I do.

  15. Gail says:

    I’m with you Dee, I would much rather read a good story about plants and gardens then another book with “a laundry list of plants which grow in USDA Zones 3 to 7”. The photo of Lycoris radiata is wonderful~It was one of the first bulbs I bought after reading Elizabeth Lawrence~She was another good story telling Southerner. gail

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Gail. I took that photo of Lycoris radiata when I was visiting the Ft. Worth Botanical Garden. I enjoyed it very much although the heat was almost more than I could bear. Yes, we all love Elizabeth Lawrence don’t we? I read her before I knew much about gardening. She inspired me.

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