No garden, no matter how small, is complete unless it has some spring bulbs, and this is the time to buy and plant your garden or container with your favorites. Bulbs are inexpensive, especially considering the joy they give. In recent years more and more bulb varieties have become available in garden centers across Japan.

Hibiya Park in central Tokyo plants formal beds of tulips and other spring bulbs every year. (Unfortunately very few other parks here follow this example.)

The tulip is perhaps the most loved spring bulb in the world, including Japan. The very first tulips came to Japan from the Netherlands during the Edo Period (1603-1867). During the Meiji Period tulips were imported on a larger scale. They are now grown commercially in Niigata, Toyama, Hyogo and Shimane prefectures along the Sea of Japan — and tulips are still imported directly from Holland.

Tulips belong to the lily family (yuri-ka, Liliaceae). There are estimated to be around 100 wild species, over 5,000 domestic cultivars and some 300 cultivars now grown commercially.

It is important to know that the first tulips to reach Europe were not wild species but were of garden origin and had been cultivated for a long time in Turkey. Tulips grow naturally in eastern to central Asia and North Africa, and had been cultivated in Iran since around the 13th century. In 1554, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire to Sultan Suleyman the Great, wrote in a letter that he had seen tulips growing between Adrianople (present-day Edirne) and Constantinople. Ambassador de Busbecq sent some of these bulbs back to Vienna. On arrival in Western Europe, tulips quickly gained popularity, spreading first to Flanders, to Holland in 1571 and finally England.

In Holland between 1634 and 1637, tulips became so popular that this period is known as “tulipomania.” Outrageous prices were paid for single bulbs. Even long after tulipomania had ended, very high prices were still paid for new varieties of tulips. In 1836, for example, one bulb of the “Citadel of Antwerp” variety fetched a price of 650 British pounds.

The Netherlands are still leading producers of tulips. Every year they export over 2 billion tulip bulbs around the world. Since World War I, Dutch growers have collected wild species in Central Asia and crossed these with garden tulips, which originally came from Turkey. From this arose a late-flowering group known as “Darwin hybrid tulips.” One of the main parents of the Darwin tulips is Tulipa fosteriana, which grows in the mountains of Central Asia, in deep soil among limestone rocks at 1,700 meters. Tulipa fosteriana has shiny leaves and large red flowers.

When planting tulips in the garden, select a sunny position with well-drained, fertile soil, protected from cold winds. The tips of the bulbs should be covered with 10 cm of soil. Normally tulips flower very well the first season, after which the quality of the flower decreases.

To lengthen the lives of your tulips, remove them from the ground after the leaves have died down. Cut old flower stems 2 cm above the bulbs; do not leave bulbs exposed to sunlight as this will burn them completely. Store bulbs in a cool airy place on trays.

The daffodil (suisen, Narcissus sp.) must be next in popularity among spring bulbs. The Narcissus genus is in the Amaryllis family (higanbana-ka, Amaryllidaceae) and numbers about 27 species. They grow wild only in the Northern Hemisphere, mainly from Switzerland and southern France to the Iberian Peninsula, the richest natural habitat of Narcissus in the world; a few species are found in North Africa. The bunch-flowered Narcissus (suisen, N. tazetta var. chinensis) can be found growing from the Mediterranean right across to China, and is naturalized in the milder areas of Japan.

Daffodils achieved enormous popularity in the British Isles during the 1800s through the efforts of a number of very dedicated growers, most importantly Peter Barr, the “Daffodil King,” who was born in Govan, Glasgow in 1825. Barr approached the Royal Horticultural Society with the idea of holding a daffodil conference. The R.H.S. held the first daffodil show in London in 1884, and interest in the bulb spread quickly. There are now over 10,000 different cultivars of daffodils.

The trumpet daffodils (rappa suisen) are traditionally popular, and the most popular is “Carlton,” first raised by P. D. Williams of Cornwall, England in 1927. To date over 9,450 million bulbs have been produced of this daffodil alone.

Recently there has been a big increase in sales of mini-daffodils in Japan. The credit for developing mini-daffodils must go to Alec Gray of Camborne, Cornwall, England, the only commercial grower who concentrated on new hybrids between the small species. He started his collection soon after World War I and in time it became the most comprehensive and varied in the world.

From Gray’s collection some beautiful mini-daffodils are available in Japan. My favorite is the “Te^te a Te^te” hybrid, which he bred in 1949 from the N. cyclamineus and N. tazetta “Soleil d’Or.” This hardy little daffodil has a flower stem only 20-25 cm tall, and the golden yellow flowers do not easily blow over in windy weather. They are ideal for planting in pots or containers.

All N. cyclamineus have reflexed petals; the petals of the hybrid “Te^te a Te^te” are half reflexed. Other cyclamineus hybrids now available in Japan are “Jack Snipe,” cream-white in color with reflexed petals; “Jetfire,” with a red center and yellow reflexed outer petals; and “Quail,” with all yellow petals.

Daffodils are very tough and hardy bulbs, with the exception of N. tazetta, which is difficult to grow in cold areas. With good drainage, sun and reasonably fertile soil they will thrive for many years in the ground. Daffodils require little nitrogen fertilizer (chisso); a little bonemeal (koppun) spread at a rate of 75 grams per sq. meter before planting will give them enough nutrients.

The lily begins to flower in Japan during the rainy season (tsuyu) and like the spring bulbs should be planted in November. Lilies (yuri, Lilium sp.) also are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and grow naturally from Europe to eastern Asia. There are estimated to be 100 species, of which 13 are native to Japan.

Lilies are ideal for growing in containers or large pots on your balcony as well as in your garden. Plant bulbs singly in pots 15-20 cm wide, or place three bulbs in a 25-cm pot for greater effect. There are dozens of beautiful varieties to choose from. The “Casablanca” lily, developed in Holland in 1955, is now very popular in Japan. Its flowers are large, bowl shaped, pure white and very fragrant. “Stargazer” has rich carmine spotted crimson flowers.

One of the best lilies for cultivating in pots is the Easter lily or trumpet lily (Lilium longiflorum). It is called teppo yuri (“musket lily”) in Japanese, probably because it grows naturally on Tanegashima island off Kyushu, where the first guns (teppo) were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.

Longiflorum has often been bred with the Formosa lily (Takasago yuri, Lilium formosanum) to produce some lovely hybrids. “Hinomoto” with its pure white flowers was the very first hybrid; its stems are up to 1 meter tall, and the fragrant flowers are 10-12 cm long. On Tanegashima the flowers open between March and June; throughout the rest of Japan the hybrids of the Easter lily bloom in June. Other trumpet lily hybrids that are easily available in Japan include orange-flowered “African Queen,” pinkish-white “Pink Perfection” and yellow-flowered “Golden Splendor.”

To complete your planting, smaller bulbs can be planted together with the lilies, daffodils and tulips. Bulbs such as grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) can be planted close to the top of the pot. These bulbs will flower just before, or at the same time as, the tulips and before the lilies. There are 30 species of Muscari, native to the Mediterranean region and west Asia. Muscari are very cheap and multiply very quickly in the open ground. For best results plant in full sun, 3-7.5 cm deep. Lift the bulbs every three years to ensure continuous flowering.

Good luck with your bulb buying and with a bit of luck you will have lovely spring flowers for the new millennium.