‘Bulb hunter’ tells tale of far-reaching fascination with flowers
COLLEGE STATION — For Chris Wiesinger, a love of gardening goes back to his preteen years. But it was when he first saw papery, brown, rock-like items in a box with a picture of beautiful flowers on the front that he was smitten.
“I was enthralled by the idea that something that looked like rocks could turn into flowers, so I bought some, planted them and forgot about them,” Wiesinger remembers. “Then some red tulips came up, and they were beautiful.”
Those tulips died, but Wiesinger’s love for bulbs flourished – leading to his nickname “Flower” while in the military corps at Texas A&M University. He then went on a search for heritage bulbs across the southern U.S. from California to North Carolina and established the Southern Bulb Co. north of Tyler, which raises and sells them.
Now Wiesinger has a book, “The Bulb Hunter,” that blends his personal adventures into the tale of his company. The book, published by Texas A&M Press, is co-authored by Dr. William Welch, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist who encouraged Wiesinger from his college days. Welch weaves Wiesinger’s bulbs into interesting landscape ideas to help gardeners learn how to use them in home plantings.
“Horticulture sort of tags along with my personal story,” said Wiesinger, who begins the book as a single man and shares his courtship and marriage through the pages. “I have long held that people learn through stories, not just the facts. So it’s a socratic method of teaching about gardening and horticulture.”
Ironically, it was the dead tulips that taught Wiesinger about bulbs. He learned that
not all bulbs are suitable for all climates. And that propelled him in pursuit of forgotten bulbs across the South.
“I began to look for those that could survive. Some are as old as time. You find them in a space where the trees are gone, the house is gone, the cement is gone, but there are daffodils,” he said. “The original bulbs may have died, but the clump survived by multiplying.”
Wiesinger matches his search with the movement of people, finding some that originated in Africa, the Mediterranean and ports of Japan, for example, and thrived where immigrants or travelers to those areas settled and planted the bulbs they brought.
“There is something young and wild and western about what I do, and even sometimes when I’ve run into scary situations,” he said. “It’s a niche, but it’s a fun niche.”
Both Wiesinger and Welch share stories in the book about how the urge to dig or photograph a blooming bulb has led to tense moments. As Wiesinger puts it, “every piece of land is owned by somebody.” Welch recalls one incident in which he wanted to climb over a fence to get a closer picture of a flower. Just then, the land owner drove up to inquire what he was doing. Welch’s response that he was just taking pictures didn’t yield an offer from the landowner to let him go closer.
Whether searching for abandoned bulbs or buying from a company such as Wiesinger’s, Welch said bulbs are a good fit for today’s garden because they are low-water, low-care plants.
“It’s exciting to know we can have various bulbs blooming at different season. Many have been around for many generations,” said Welch. “For people who are interested in gardening and history as well, this book would be useful. A lot of people are looking for sustainable plants in the garden, and they may be interested in bulbs. Companion plants for bulbs are important so we wanted to include them.”
For beginning bulb planters, Wiesinger recommends the narcissus ‘Grand Primo,’ which is planted in fall to bloom in spring. They are “fragrant, reliable and fast to multiply, and one bulb can pack in two or three blooms a season.” A spring-planted bulb, ‘Rain Lily,’ which blooms regularly every three or four days after a rain, is another good one for beginners, he said.