Twist and Shout
Ornamentals: By Mary James Photography by Bob Wigand
Giant White Squill is a Landscape Drama Queen
Giant white squill (Urginea maritima) is one bodacious bulb. It’s one of the world’s largest, about the size of volleyball and weighing 8 to 10 pounds. (A daffodil bulb, in comparison, is only a few ounces.) In late summer when it blooms, flower spires twist and turn five or more feet in the air, like sculpted water spouts. No wonder they were a florist favorite for years before gardeners discovered their dramatic power in the landscape.
Like most stars, giant white squill knows how to make an entrance. In winter, it unfurls handsome wide leaves up to 30 inches long, looking somewhat tropical despite its Mediterranean origins. By June, the leaves dry up and disappear, raising fears that the show is over and the plant has died. But in August, all is forgiven as the leafless flower spikes begin their rapid rise and striking late-summer display of white star-shaped flowers that open top to bottom over three to four weeks.
A member of the lily family, giant white squill has been a popular cemetery plant for centuries in the Middle East and southern Europe. In Israel, where the bulb has naturalized around the country, its flowering has become the harbinger of autumn. The plant has been cultivated for a variety of medicinal uses and rodent control; it can be toxic if eaten.
Giant white squill’s recent surge of popularity here began in the 1980s when horticulturist Peter McCrohan spotted them growing at Gentry Experimental Farm in Murrieta. The farm’s owner, the late Howard Gentry, a USDA official, professor and plant explorer, had collected eight bulbs from around the Mediterranean Sea and planted them in his Riverside County growing grounds.
Within a few years, McCrohan had filled eight acres with the exotic bulbs that proved irresistible to flower arrangers and ultimately gardeners. Recently, he selected and began cultivating a smaller version he calls “Delicates.” They grow about 2 1/2-feet tall from a bulb the size of a baseball.
Both squills are available from Ocean-side-based Easy to Grow Bulbs. The hefty bulbs, field grown for eight years or more before being marketed, come with an equally hefty price tag. The giants are $25 each or five for $99.95; the “Delicates” are three for $39.95 or 10 for $99.95. Order them at easytogrowbulbs.com.
For all of its glamour, giant white squill is a tough plant. Easy to Grow Bulb’s owner Jim Threadgill cultivates them in Fallbrook fields with no supplemental water. He recommends planting the bulbs in well-draining soil in a warm, dry spot in the gar-den. The plant’s fibrous roots reach out and down five feet or more to find the moisture it needs. Over water and the bulb can rot.
Be sure the neck of the bulb is even with the ground when planting. For an eye-catching landscape display, group an odd number — three, five or seven — together. Over time, attractive clumps will develop.
When the leaves turn yellow and die back, cut the plant back to the ground. And then wait for the spectacular second act to begin.
Botanical name: Urginea maritima
Pronunciation: Ur-gin-ee-ah mar-it-tim-ah
Common name: Giant white squill
Plant type: Bulb
Habit: Foliage clumps resemble those of agapanthus; tall flower spikes are leafless and rise from bare ground.
Foliage: Strappy green leaves to 30 inches tall appear in winter and then die back
Bloom: Leafless flower spikes to 5 feet tall or more; white starry flowers. Long vase life as cut flower.
Planting time: Fall into winter
Where: Full sun
Soil: Well-draining soil
Water: Water after planting to help establish, especially if winter rains are light; drought tolerant once established. Avoid water after leaves die back and plant is dormant.
Feed: None needed
Prune: Cut back fading foliage and spent flower stalks to the ground.
Growth: Will form large clumps over time; can be divided.