Discover Blooming Bulbs

Extra information for Dairy Diary readers


When is a bulb not a bulb?

When it’s a corm, tuber or rhizome! These are routinely referred to as bulbs, which has become something of a generic term. They all act as underground larders, and are grown in similar ways, but it’s good to know what you are actually planting.

A bulb is roundish and narrows to a point at the top. Tightly packed, fleshy layers (the food store) surround a central bud (source of the stem) and are attached to a small flat area at the base, from which the roots grow. Many bulbs, such as tulips, have a papery outer skin, known as a tunic; others, such as lilies, don’t have this protective layer. Most bulbs flower each year, shedding old scales and adding new ones around the centre. New bulbs, known as offsets, form around the base.

A corm looks very much like a bulb, but its tunic may be less papery and it has a bigger base area. Nutrients are stored in modified stem tissue rather than scales, and by the end of the season, when all the goodness has been used, the corm will have withered, leaving one or more new corms around the base. Examples are crocuses, freesia and gladioli.

A tuber doesn’t look much like a bulb and has no tunic, scales or basal plate. In fact, it’s either a swollen stem, such as cyclamen and begonias, or a swollen root, such as dahlias and daylilies. Tubers come in different shapes and sizes and sometimes in clusters. If you’re not sure which way up to plant a tuber, lay it sideways and it will find its own way.

A rhizome is a swollen underground stem that grows sideways rather than down. Plants sprout from nodes along its length. Examples include irises, lily-of-the-valley and some bamboos.

Runners and stolons are also horizontal creeping stems, but these operate above ground. New plants shoot upwards and send down roots all along a runner’s length – strawberries are a well-known and tasty example – while stolons produce roots and plants at the tip only.


Say ‘bulbs’ and most people immediately think of daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus to give the plant its Latin name. Scientifically speaking, Narcissus is the genus to which hundreds of species belong, including daffodils and jonquils, and daffodil is the common name for any plant in the genus Narcissus. So it’s hardly surprising that the names narcissus and daffodil are often used interchangeably.

No one really knows how Narcissus came by its centuries-old name. One lovely theory, the product of a particularly fertile imagination, is that it derives from the ancient Greek myth of a beautiful youth, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pond. The daffodil’s dropped head is supposed to represent the young man bowing to gaze adoringly at himself. According to one version of the tale, he toppled in and drowned.

Another idea is that the name has something to do with the flower’s fragrance, which is intoxicating according to Pliny, Roman author and naturalist – that’s ‘narkao’ in Greek, from which comes ‘narcotic’, which could at a stretch evolve into ‘narcissus’.

‘Daffodil’ has a marginally more logical derivation. It’s supposed to come from asphodel, ancient Greek asphodelus. In olden days, the narcissus was often referred to as asphodel, the wild lily, but how the initial ‘d’ came to be added is a mystery.

You can buy single or double daffodil bulbs in many different varieties and all sizes from the miniature tete-a-tete to the large and showy King Alfred. Plant them outside in the autumn at a depth of three times their height, pointed end upwards. They prefer slightly acidic soil, and look great grouped together in borders, under trees, in grass, in walls, tubs and pots, just about anywhere, but not in full shade (which inhibits flowering).

Jonquils, Narcissus jonquilla, have clusters of small, strongly scented, yellow flowers at the top of each stem, instead of just one bloom, and their dark green leaves are tube-shaped rather than flat, as is the case with other daffodils.

Ironic, really, that such a universally loved plant, greeted with such pleasure as a sign of springtime renewal, is toxic. All parts of the daffodil can cause adverse reactions; even the sap is a skin irritant. So don’t be tempted to add leaves to a salad, or decorate cakes with the flower heads, or mistake the bulb for an onion. Nothing but trouble would result!

Forcing bulbs

Potted hyacinths make a lovely addition to Christmas decorations but they have to be persuaded to flower out of their natural season. First of all, you have to buy the right, specially treated bulbs. Look for those labelled ‘prepared’ and follow the package instructions. September or October is the time, depending on variety.

Put a layer of bulb fibre in your bowl (no drainage holes), dampen the fibre and place the bulbs gently so as not to touch each other or the side of the pot. Fill in with soil not quite to the rim, making sure the tops of the bulbs are just showing, and firm down, adding a little more soil if necessary. It’s best to wear gloves for this, as the bulbs can irritate the skin. Once your pot is planted up, leave it in a cool, dark place. Water sparingly and only if the compost feels dry. When the shoots are about 5cm (2in) long, in about ten weeks, move the pot to a coolish, not too brightly lit area and keep away from draughts and radiators until the flowers are out. Then put the pot where the flowers can be seen to their best advantage and allow the heavenly fragrance to fill the room. Make sure the compost is kept just moist, not wet or the bulbs will rot.

Once flowering has finished and the foliage has died down, it’s worth planting the bulbs outside to see if they will flower again the following spring. Otherwise, chop them up and add them to the compost heap.

Paperwhite narcissi can be treated in more or less the same way. Plant the bulbs in a shallow bowl around six to ten weeks before you want them to flower and leave them in a warm, bright, draught-free spot. The flowers form in delicate white clusters and have a strong fragrance, making a great indoor display. You will probably have to support the stems as they can get lanky but you could try leaving the bowl in a cool, dark place until the buds appear, and then moving it out into the light, which may prevent the stems from getting too long.


Dealing with food

Sometimes a simple trick or two can make a big difference – and life a bit easier. Your grandmother may have told you about rice in the salt cellar. Well, it’s true! Adding just a few grains ensures the salt runs freely and puts an end to desperate table-banging measures to dislodge even a sprinkling from the solid mass.

To get the most juice out of lemons, and other citrus fruit, make sure they are at room temperature and roll them around on the work surface before cutting in half. Then a smattering of lemon juice on cut avocado and sliced apples will stop them going brown.

Avocados are a great ingredient but can be difficult to deal with. Make sure they’re ripe by gently squeezing the narrow end – it should give just a little. Once halved, take the stone out by banging it with the heel of your kitchen knife and twisting it. If you want slices, better to leave the skin on to prevent slipping and crushing, and then spoon out or peel the skin off each slice. On the subject of peeling, it’s often easier to peel ginger using the side of a spoon rather than a knife.

The egg-floating trick is a great way to check freshness. Gently drop your suspect egg in a glass of water. If it sinks, it’s fresh enough to eat; if it floats, it isn’t. Once you’ve hardboiled it, spoon it out of the hot water straightaway and hold it under cold running water for a few seconds to stop the rim of the yolk going black.

Don’t throw away the rind of hard cheese, such as parmesan, because you can use it to flavour soups and stock, but remember to fish it out before serving.

If you prefer your honey runny and it has solidified, stand the jar in boiled water (off the heat) and allow to cool. Do it as many times as it takes to make the honey runny again. Don’t use a microwave because that destroys all the honey’s health-giving properties.


Bicarbonate of soda and white distilled vinegar are magic ingredients for an under-control kitchen. To combat any unwanted smells, leave a bowl of vinegar on the worktop for an hour or so, sprinkle some bicarb in the bottom of the bin, and keep a saucer of it in the fridge. Change the saucer every couple of weeks, but don’t waste the bicarb. Tip two tablespoons of it down the sink followed by half a cup of vinegar. Stand back for dramatic fizzing and leave to bubble for around a quarter of an hour. Then flush through with cold water.

A similar strategy is good for cleaning roasting tins and microwave turntables. Sprinkle with bicarb and pour on a solution of three parts water to one part white vinegar. Fizz! Wipe off. Use the same mixture on the walls and floor of the oven after you’ve used it and while it’s still warm, before any grease has hardened on.

For a burnt pan, sprinkle liberally with salt, leave for a minute or two, then rub off. If it’s badly burnt, apply a thick layer of bicarb, moisten with water, leave overnight and wash in the morning; or fill it with water and soda crystals and boil. For a non-stick pan, rub gently with a paste of bicarb and water.

A piece of lemon rind in the dishwasher’s cutlery tray leaves your dishes sparkling, and fizzy soda water is good for cleaning stainless steel sinks and cutlery while, unlikely as it may sound, copper and brass come up a treat with ketchup.


On your bike!

Due to the miracles of modern science and the EEG (electroencephalogram) machine, the pattern of sleeping cycles is well established. While you are in a state of blissful unconsciousness, your brain is busy making all sorts of complex adjustments, moving you from light to deep, or delta, sleep in three stages, and back again.

You can be fairly easily woken up to begin with but by stage 3, delta sleep, you are well and truly gone. In stage 4, you are on the verge of wakefulness and your eyes under their closed lids are darting about all over the place. This is the only stage that involves rapid eye movement (REM) and dreaming. Fortunately, your brain immobilises you into sleep paralysis, or you might try to act out the substance of your dreams (not to be confused with sleepwalking, which originates from deep sleep).

Each cycle lasts upwards of 90 minutes and five or six of them mean a good night’s sleep. As the night progresses, the original long periods of deep sleep and short REM episodes are reversed and you may skip the last deep-sleep time altogether.

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