Those Blooming Bulbs

Do you suffer from OBS? See how James, our produce expert, handles his obsession with spring bulb flowers.

Like all fresh produce, there is a season for bulb flowers.

In the late fall, depending where you live in the US, daffodil, tulip, iris, freesia and other bulbs start showing up for sale at nurseries, grocery and home improvement stores.

Here in California most stores sell out of bulbs by December and this period of time is perilous for hypersensitive produce geeks like me because of what I call “orphan bulb syndrome”. 


Orphan bulb syndrome (or OBS for short) is the uncontrollable compulsion to rescue those last remaining straggler bulbs of the season. These sad, few bulbs languishing at the bottom of the display boxes are perfectly fine but have not yet found a home. It’s worse if the bulb is just starting to sprout a tiny bit of green at the top or if there is a close out sale. That’s when OBS becomes unbearable.

This year was my worst case of OBS ever. I went to my local nursery to buy some plant food for the garlic in my garden and $100 dollars and two weekends later every pot I own is full.

Fortunately for all of us OBS sufferers, there is a very large and diverse industry dedicated to bringing fresh-cut and potted-bulb flowers to all of us. Many bulb flower varieties are grown in both greenhouses and in fields. The greenhouse product tends to be easier to predict, but field flowers (particularly daffodils) tend to be larger, hardier and generally more desirable.


Rain (and the associated cloud cover), air and ground temperature, and other harvest conditions will all conspire to influence scheduled harvest days. Because the season is so short and the window of optimal harvest conditions so narrow, the available supply can go from feast to famine and back again in a matter of days.

Tulips and daffodils are cool climate plants that require a period of dormancy every year in order to produce a flower. For greenhouse production this can be accomplished by placing bulbs in giant coolers until they are ready to be planted. Growers can also use this method to regulate the size of their crop — chilling larger or smaller amounts to match demand. This makes the ramp up in volume for holidays like Easter or Mother’s Day much easier to manage.


My orphan bulbs spent a week in my refrigerator prior to planting as added insurance to the short “chill” periods around my home.

Aside from their obvious beauty, I love the life cycle of bulb flowers, particularly tulips. I’ll buy a bunch over the weekend and watch the mystery of cell expansion unfold over the course of the week. When tulips are harvested the cells of the plant are tight and compressed. As the plant ages these cells open up making the bloom larger (and more colorful) and the stems longer and weaker. This “goose neck” effect is another in a long list of things I love about tulips. If your tulips are “tight” and you want them to open quickly, cutting the bottom of the stem at an angle prior to placing them in a vase of water will do the trick.

By mid-February, my orphaned bulbs have settled into their adopted homes and the first few early bloomers are starting to reverse the OBS-fueled buyer’s remorse I’ve been feeling since December. In two weeks or so, weather permitting, the porch outside of my kitchen will be filled with what my daughter calls “happy flower faces” and my orphan bulb syndrome will go into remission for another year.


Spring bulbs have a special place in the cycle of seasons because they bring color and a sense of renewal at a time when most of the country is still in winter. From these small and compact packages comes the promise of spring.

Are you afflicted with Orphan Bulb Syndrome? Tell me about your favorite spring bulb flowers in the comments below.

Many thanks to Amanda Rainey for contributing to this post.

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