Giant Squill

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After the heat of Summer breaks, the Urginea sprouts.  A single bulb can weigh five pounds; this plant doesn't know the meaning of "small."

 

It's bigger than my fist but, truth to tell, my Urginea's still a wimp.  Bulbs have been reported as big as soccer balls—which means the fit in this terra cotta pot would be a heckuva lot tighter.

 

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Yes, even a wimp can produce a lot of foliage.  A month later, it's full size. 

 

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Urginea is a wet-season / dry-season bulb, native to Mediterranean climates of hot and dry Summers, and mild and wet Winters.  The foliage appears when the rains return in the Fall and dies away as the dry heat returns in the Spring. 

 

Urginea flowers once a year, before the leaves appear, with tall spikes—three, four, five feet tall—of hundreds of starry white flowers.  Thrilling.  But this year, once again, my Urginea skipped the flowers entirely, starting into  growth with leaves alone.  Argh.

 

See "How to Handle It" below for strategies on making your Urginea so happy it can't help but flower—and I don't just mean moving where it grows like a weed:  Arizona, say?  Sicily?  Jordan? 

 

I need Urginia in bloom, though, in New England.  Will I succeed?  We'll know by next September.

 

 

Here's how to grow this mammoth bulb:


Latin Name

Urginea maritima, Drimia maritima

Common Name

Giant Squill

Family

Asparagaceae, the Asparagus family.

What kind of plant is it

Bulb.

Hardiness

Zones 8 - 10

Habit

Coarse basal foliage erupts in Fall from a massive bulb that prefers, like an amaryllis, to be partly or even mostly above-ground.  A tall spike of small starry flowers completes its life cycle in late Summer before the leaves appear.  The spikes can be three to five feet tall.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

In ideal climates, a colony of check-by-jowl daughter bulbs (and grand-daughter bulbs) a couple of feet across. 

Texture

The bulbs are impressively clunky—to the size of soccer balls!—and the foliage thick and coarse.  If you like raw-boned and cartoonish details that would fit right in as set decor for "The Flintstones," Urginea is the bulb for you.  The spikes of flowers, though, are the opposite in every detail: Slender and unusually tall, and crowded with small starry flowers.  Urginea is similar, then, to Eremurus in scale as well as look:  Both have foliage you put up with to get the tall spikes of flowers to die for.

Grown for

its flowers.  Tall spikes of starry white flowers (although some bulbs produce flowers that are tinted with red), three, four, even five feet tall, scream out to be cut for high-drama flower arrangements.  This is the flower for vases in hotel lobbies, high-ceilinged entry halls, and modern architecture everywhere.

 

its vigor and toughness: Urginea thrives with no care at all, at least in climates that provide the Summers that are hot and dry, followed by Winters that are cool and wet but rarely frosty. 

Flowering season

Late Summer:  Where native, giant squill blooms late in the dry season: August into September.  The foliage doesn't appear until after the flowers have matured to seeds; the two are never present at the same time.

Culture

Full sun, extremely well-drained soil that can also be sandy or even gravelly.  No water at all in Summer. 

How to handle it

Urginea maritima is the definition of tough.  It's completely dormant during Summer, when it would normally receive no water in its dry-season / wet-season habitat around the Mediterranean.  The bulb must be protected from rain, then, in climates where Summer precipitation is the norm.  But because the bulb is also used to scorching Summer sun, you can't just grow Urginea in a container that can be stored out of the rain for the Summer, which would also remove it from the heat and sun the dormant bulb prefers. 

 

So I keep my potted Urginea out on the terrace for Summer—but I also rig up a rain-shield to keep the bulb dry.  (In October, I move the pot into the cool greenhouse before frost.)  But given that this year the bulb was, once again, "blind," meaning it didn't produce flowers, I need to keep rain out of the entire pot, not just the huge bulb itself.  Fine.  In 2012, I'll rig the definitive—but also stylish—translucent roof. 

Downsides

If you don't have access to a greenhouse it takes some doing to provide the right conditions for the huge bulb's  Summer dormancy: full sun and completely dry.  You can't just lug the pot into your garage for the Summer, because while the pot will be dry, it won't get that baking heat.

 

Winter means effort, too. The weather needs to be cooler and wetter; the occasional overnight flurry is tolerated, but not sustained freezing.  Think, say, of the "Winter" in Sicily:  Chilly nights but sunny days.  Some drizzle and driving rain, and even the rare as well as transitory accumulation of snow. 

 

Urginea is one of the few species that makes me wish I were gardening in Southern California instead of New England, where no effort would be needed at all.

Variants

There are a few other Urginea species, all native to dry-climate locales in Africa.  (U. altissima, for example, is native to Zimbabwe.)  They're only different enough to be worth growing if Urginea is your thing, lucky you. 

 

U. maritima can also have red-tinted flowers, giving a common name of red squill.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By seed.  The bulbs eventually offset.  During the Summer dormancy, gently pry outer-edge individuals away from the colony or, using a fork not a shovel, so you don't sever as many of the thick roots, lift the whole group and pull it apart entirely. 

Native habitat

Urginea maritima is native to the Meditteranean.  

 
 
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