The Bulb Hunter
Flower bulbs — those turnipy looking, husky things in mesh bags, crowded into crayola-bright display bins at the big-box stores — suffer from granny’s-garden syndrome: they’re seen as old-fashioned, fussy, and patience-straining in today’s want-it-now culture. Unlike a flat of annuals, they don’t offer instant gratification; you may have to wait a year or more after planting a bulb to see it bloom. Southern U.S. gardeners are even more discouraged from buying bulbs because many readily available varieties don’t perform well in our hot climate, requiring a longer, colder winter and more moisture to reliably bloom and multiply.
Innocent of all marketing and production difficulties for bulb sellers, Texas A&M horticulture student Chris Wiesinger — already nicknamed “Flower” by his fellow corpsmen — came up with a business plan for a senior class project that involved selling to the public heirloom bulbs that grow well in the South. Upon graduating he decided to put his plan into action. He soon discovered that there weren’t any bulb growers in warm climates around the world and hence none of the bulbs he wanted to broker. Still, he knew that plenty of flowering bulbs for Southern gardeners exist because he saw them thriving in the passalong-plant gardens of rural homes and small towns and even without irrigation or care in pastures and at abandoned homesteads along back-country roads.
Chris Wiesinger & spider lilies. Photo courtesy of www.southernbulbs.com
Wiesinger realized he’d have to become a plant collector and — a more intimidating prospect — a farmer in order to have bulbs to sell. He honed his idea through meetings with growers, horticulturists, and other mentors around the state and eventually obtained $25,000 in seed money. Understanding that bulbs would be best farmed in sandy loam soil such as can be found in northeast Texas, he cold-called a sweet potato farmer in the area, explained his idea, and stammered out a request for a few acres of farmland. To his surprise the farmer granted the use of 10 acres that included a primitive fishing cabin by a lake.
In the fall of 2004 Wiesinger moved into the cabin and started what would become The Southern Bulb Company. Two years later he got a lucky break with a New York Times story about him and his work, which not only garnered him a new, more flattering nickname, “The Bulb Hunter,” but also speaking invitations from around the country and a raft of publicity for his company, which, after some setbacks, began turning a profit.
Wiesinger’s dog Fischer nosing a crinum. Photo courtesy of www.southernbulbs.com
These days Wiesinger spends much of his time on the road, traveling to speaking engagements and crisscrossing the South’s two-lane highways with an eagle-eye out for promising stands of flowering bulbs. When he spots one he tracks down the owner via tax office records or simply knocking on doors to get permission before digging. Few ask him for anything in return except, perhaps, a sympathetic ear for their life history. In the process, Wiesinger has become a collector not only of bulbs but of people’s stories. Like an anthropologist of the small-town South, he shares some of these tales in his 2013 book The Bulb Hunter, which he coauthored — each wrote a separate section — with his chief mentor, horticulturist William C. Welch.
“[M]y story is not just about the bulbs but about the people,” Wiesinger writes in The Bulb Hunter, and that’s half the pleasure of reading it. Far from a dry description of the bulbs he grows, the book tells the story of his adventures — of starting a business, of living an unexpected life, of encounters with charismatic and eccentric plant nuts, even of falling in love. Sprinkled throughout his tale are snippets of information about certain bulbs and a generous helping of eye-candy photos of bulbs in bloom and, even more interestingly, of his co-workers, friends, and family who helped him along the way.
I will tell you that Wiesinger’s writing style is uneven, with his subject matter jumping all over the place, even within paragraphs. At times the story is confusing to follow, and one wishes he’d had the benefit of a strong-handed editor. And yet I found myself drawn to his tale nonetheless. Reading it is like overhearing a scattershot conversation about his bulb-hunting adventures. More than that, you get a sense of Wiesinger himself: his old-fashioned Southern politeness, sly sense of humor, and somewhat timid disposition (he approaches homeowners with trepidation, and he shyly declines to be set up on dates with the daughters and sisters of admiring garden club members and nursery employees, although he eventually relents, falls in love with, and marries one). You get glimpses too of the camaraderie, loneliness, and sacrifices that come with starting a new business. Wiesinger initially believes his job will be selling bulbs, but it morphs into plant-collecting and farming before ultimately coming back around to selling — selling, via the garden-talk circuit, his charming self and his passion for getting more people interested in these heirloom and forgotten bulbs.
Texas tulips on the farm. Photo courtesy of www.southernbulbs.com
Bill Welch’s section, which makes up the second half of The Bulb Hunter, is also written in a conversational style, yet it provides a detailed picture of the bulbs and companion plants that grow well in the South. Welch is an able writer and a knowledgeable plantsman, and his section offers solid information for those interested in growing bulbs in the South.
I recommend The Bulb Hunter for any warm-climate gardener, bulb nut, or anyone who enjoys a behind-the-scenes look at starting a garden-related business. It’s also for those who love stories about people who are passionate about plants.
Disclosure: I met Chris Wiesinger at the Antique Rose Emporium last month, where we both were giving talks. Texas A&M University Press sent me a copy of The Bulb Hunter for review at my request. I reviewed it at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.
All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.