The adage ‘it takes all sorts’ applies just as accurately to plants as is does to people. Some plants hide their light under a bushel whilst others come out all guns blazing; some are solid marathon runners, others are thrilling sprinters. A good garden needs a balance of each to maintain interest: variety is vitality. Planted with too many slow-but-steady types, a garden runs the risk of appearing dull, monotonous, even institutional. Furnished with a surfeit of boom-and-bust plants, a plot will be prone to moments of glory followed by ugliness or vacant nothingness. Not to mention the hard work involved in plugging the gaps. One of the many skills a good gardener must learn is how to successfully compose plants with different attributes. A great gardener will also make them sing.The value in short-lived flowers comes when celebrating the season or providing moments of exhilaration when they should choose, albeit briefly, to do their thing. Returning to my opening analogy, Scilla peruviana, the Portuguese squill, is a fully paid-up, pistol-toting 100 metre runner. A stout, bulbous plant, it does nothing of interest for the majority of the year (in common with other squills and many spring flowering bulbs) before dazzling with a retina-burning display of gentian-blue flowers for a few days in May: exactly how many days is determined by the weather. From a timing point of view Scilla peruviana can be a useful plant, bridging the gap between late flowering tulips and the first of the herbaceous perennials, but mostly it’s a showstopper.
I have grown Scilla peruviana for the first time this year having been inspired both by Sissinghurst and local Broadstairs gardens. At Sissinghurst a rivulet of blue appears at the foot of the red-brick Moat Walk wall each spring. The dense cones of intense, star-shaped flowers are a sizzling counterpoint to red, orange and yellow azaleas planted on the opposite bank. Scilla peruviana revels in a sunbaked, sheltered spot, originating as it does from warmer climes than the British Isles. However it’s not, as the name suggests, from Peru. Originally named Hyacinthus stellatus peruanus it’s thought that 16th Century botanist Carolus Clusius mistook the fact that the bulbs had arrived on a ship named ‘Peru’ for this being their country of origin. Linneaus perpetuated the error by renaming the plant Scilla peruviana in 1753, and the name stuck. Clusius’ bulbs had in fact come from somewhere in the Western Mediterranean, rendering the present common name, Portuguese squill, more accurate than the Latin.
In common with many Mediterranean bulbs, Scilla peruviana prefers well-drained soil, plenty of sunlight and a warm, dry summer rest. After flowering in May and June the leaves die back before re-emerging in late summer and enduring through the winter. Grown as a pot plant the bulbs enjoy a mix of two parts John Innes No.2, one part leafmould and one part grit. When in growth the pot should be watered freely, before easing off after flowering and allowing to dry out. The cultivar I am growing, S. ‘Caribbean Jewels Sapphire Blue’ claims to be more tolerant of cooler climes, shrugging off a few degrees of frost. Planted in September the bulbs will flower the following spring. I’d recommend overwintering in a cold greenhouse or coldframe where available.
If I had space in my garden I’d plant generous clumps of Scilla peruviana with a late flowering yellow tulip such as ‘Westpoint’ and perennial Euphorbia polychroma, which produces sulphur-coloured bracts at about the same time. The moment created may be fleeting, but could easily be followed by hardy geraniums or salvias, which would both cope with a degree of summer drought. The secret is not to allow the Scillas to be smothered too early, permitting the leaves to recharge the bulbs ready for their next splendid moment of glory. TFG.