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Plant of the Month October 2017

Sternbergia

It is at this time of year, when it is possible to get so excited about choosing and planting bulbs for spring, that we so easily miss the autumn flowering bulbs that provide some relief from the shorter and wetter days.  Among the autumn crocus, colchicums and cyclamen, are one of my favourites, Sternbergia lutea, or the 'Great Winter Daffodil'. Given that you are most likely to find them in older gardens or church yards, suggests that they are not as commonly enjoyed as they use to be. This is a shame as the golden yellow of the petals I can think only of seeing in flowers such as buttercups, they really are a pretty sight.
 


Sternbergia flowers

Close-up

Initially described as Narcissus some 400 years ago, they are at least in the family Amaryllidaceae, along snowdrops and amaryllis. They are found from parts of Spain through to Asia and Iran, in larger numbers within Turkey where many botanists assume they originated. Within the genus Sternbergia are seven species,  but while most are restricted to alpine house conditions, Sternbergia lutea grow happily and vigorously in the garden.

The so called winter daffodil has golden yellow goblet shaped flowers, usually single and similar in appearance to the crocus that we are all very familiar with. Internally,  Sternbergia  can be distinguished by the number of stamen, as with Colchicum, they have 6 stamens whilst Crocus only have three. They can vary in height from 2.5 cm to 20cm depending on the growing conditions and light levels, with the average size being roughly 10cm. They usually flower whilst in leaf, the leaves similar to those of freshly emerged daffodil leaves. Sterbergia produce true bulbs unlike Crocus and Colchicum which produce corms.


Crocus and Sternbergia 

In the wild it is found in scrub and gravelly areas, and thrives on limestone soil, but in a warm sunny position in well drained soil, they  will flower well.  A protecting wall, fence or even the less shady side of a shrub offers a good home. In the Queen's Garden at Kew, they can be found growing under a tulip tree, in soil not ideal for too many other plants.


Sternbergia lutea under a tree

Sternbergia can be grown from fresh seed but it can be a slow process taking between three and five years for the first flowers to appear. It is much easier  to buy bulbs from a specialist bulb supplier giving you instant flowering in the first year and then every year afterwards. Also as the years pass by, the numbers will increase as the bulbs will produce offsets which will flower either next season or the following season. Once the group has established it may become dense, this will reduce the size and number of flowers. Once this happens it is a good idea to dig them all up when dormant, divide them, and then  replant in the same place and other positions in the garden.
 


Sternbergia leaves

Sternbergia flowers

It is the potential use for delicate interest under trees and shrubs, alongside their cheery yellow that make Sternbergia so appealing to me, and popping a few in the ground next year may provide you with a pleasant surprise when you least expect it. 

Andrew Luke Posted by Andrew Luke

Andrew Luke is Head Gardener at Wrest Park (English Heritage). He can be contacted on twitter @PlantGrafter

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