If you have ever wandered along the coastal cliffs of the north and west of the British Isles, you may have encountered one of the most delicate of our native spring flowers, the Spring Squill, Scilla verna. Nestling in the short turf or tucked into crevices, when abundant it can form a misty blue haze. Even though my garden has the right climate and soil, I have never tried to grow our native squills, although I cultivate a number of their close relatives.
The Alpine Squill, Scilla bifolia, is one of the earliest of the spring bulbs to flower in my garden. It nestles in the shelter of the orchard and as soon as it emerges forms clusters of pale blue flowers. The colour is perhaps not as intense and the flowers not as large as some of the other cultivated Scillas, but it has a gentle charm. Found in central and southern Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia, it naturalises readily in British gardens, and despite its delicate appearance will survive a Hebridean gale.
The second species which is widely scattered throughout the garden is Scilla siberica. It originates from south-western Russia, the Caucasus, and Turkey and is a robust plant which has invasive tendencies is some gardens. It is a little larger than S. bifolia with more robust, nodding, bell-shaped flowers of an intense blue. There are white and pale pink varieties, but I prefer the rich Persian blue of the common form.
The final component of my quartet of early flowering squills is Scilla ramburei which is grown in the alpine house and is just starting to flower. Found in North Africa and the southern Iberian Peninsula, it may be a little less hardy than some of the other species. It has more compact inflorescence with pale blue flowers and broad, glaucous leaves. This group of bulbs were grown from seed and is probably now ready to split. I am tempted to try some outside in a sheltered corner either in the orchard or rock garden.
There are numerous Scilla species; diverse in their form, flowering times and habitats, with a geographical range from Northern Europe to western and central Africa. Taxonomically they are a mess, with Chionodoxa now classified as part of the Scilla bifolia group and other species moving to genus Hyacinthoides or visa-versa, or possibly to entirely new genera
Traditionally plants were classified according to their floral morphology, however plant taxonomy and classification has moved on substantially in the last 300 years. Seed and seedling morphology, bulb characteristics, biochemistry and DNA are all now included in the analysis and there are probably as many interpretations as to which species belong in which genus as there are taxonomists. I tend to stick with the name that I know or can remember, which works well, unless I have to consult the internet to check on cultivation conditions. It is really not that important to me that the plants labelled Scilla litardierei and Scilla pratensis are the same species and will probably be renamed as Nectaroscilla littardierei. I certainly won’t be able to remember that S. siberica is now Octhodes siberica or that S. ramburei is now Tractema. I suspect that by the time I have learnt the new name, that it will probably have reverted to Scilla.
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. I think I will remain faithful to “scintillating Scillas“.