Smith College’s spring bulb show ready to go
Bulb plants are kept cold before the opening Friday of Smith College's Spring Bulb Show to ensure that all the plants are in bloom at the same time.
Smith College sophomore Marisal Dobbins ties up the leaves of bulbs so they will remain upright for the annual bulb show
NORTHAMPTON — When the Smith College Botanic Garden opens its annual Spring Bulb Show Friday, the bright colors and intense aromas of the flowers on display will impress visitors as soon as they step through the greenhouse doors. What’s not as visible, however, is the amount of work and planning that happens behind the scenes to make the show possible each spring.
Getting the 3,000 tulips, 1,500 narcissus, 400 hyacinths and more than 2,000 other types of bulbs that go on view Friday to bloom simultaneously is no easy feat.
After nearly a century of experience putting on the show, the garden has a tried-and-true system of scheduling charts and labeling to track the proper timing needed to synchronize the blooming of the thousands of bulbs that will be showcased.
In a process known as “forcing,” the bulbs are placed inside a cooler in mid-October and kept at a temperature of about 38 degrees. This is done because bulbs make their roots in the fall during a process of moist chilling, called vernalization.
“That’s why people plant bulbs in the fall. When they cool, before they’re frozen, they make roots,” said Michael Marcotrigiano, the botanic garden’s director. “The flower bud is already in bulbs when you buy them, just waiting to come out. So that’s why they come out early in the spring; because everything is ready to go.”
“Let’s say you didn’t put them out in the fall, you put them out in the spring,” he said, “Then, they’re in trouble, because it’s not growing the flower, and there’s no roots.”
In order for a show to be successful, the process of coaxing all of the plants to bloom together at the right time must be performed according to the precise timetable developed over the years. It’s not always possible to do it perfectly every time though, Marcotrigiano said, due simply to the nature of biology.
Different bulbs require different periods of time to bloom, and must be removed from the cooler accordingly. The bulbs that take the longest to send out their flowers are removed first, and the quickest sprouting ones are removed last.
“Our recipe is really based on years of trial and error,” he said. “It’s really a matter of pulling stuff out at just the right time. The earliest stuff we pull is in mid-December, and the latest is mid-January,” he said.
If a particular plant is pulled too early, he said, it is placed in a cold greenhouse to induce a state of suspended animation until the other plants catch up to it. Similar problems can occur with bulbs that are pulled too late, as well.
“You can’t be way off, because if you start doing really big temperature changes, buds will spontaneously abort,” Marcotrigiano said, “they’ll blast — just open up and blow out the flower.”
“All we’re doing is messing with a pre-existing biological condition,” he said. “We’re essentially just shortening the winter.”
Over the course of the show, which runs through March 17, Marcotrigiano said some 30,000 visitors are expected to come through the doors of the Lyman Conservatory on College Lane on the Smith College campus. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, with evening hours on March 8 and 15 from 4 to 8 p.m. The show is free; a $2 donation is suggested.