While early plant history may have faded, the link between bulb plants and humans has existed for centuries. The histories of four widespread bulb varieties show how people have depended on, and allowed themselves to dream about, bulb plants. Onion and garlic are centuries-old mainstays of many cuisines and medical tonics. Daffodils have greeted spring throughout the world and protected garden crops from destruction. Tulips both beautify gardens and, at one time, created a dream of wealth beyond the imagination.
While the original domesticators of onions have been lost to history, Pliny noted the presence of onion beds in the gardens of Pompeii, determining the contents of the gardens by the shapes of vegetables burned in volcanic ash. Archeologists have also found onions packed in the tombs of Egyptian mummies. Medieval herbalists put faith in onions as cough-relievers, blood-strengtheners and remedies for everything from toothache to snake and dog bites.
Mediterranean climates were historically and remain hospitable to the cultivation of garlic. It is hard to imagine Greek, Italian, or Middle Eastern cuisines without it. Like onions, the aromatic properties of garlic suggested the importance of garlic in treating coughs and respiratory problems, although some wags have always suggested that the smell of garlic is its most health-giving property, keeping those who might have germs at a distance from the garlic-eater. Garlic, along with onions and leeks, were among the Egyptian foods mourned by the departing Israelites in the exodus account in the Hebrew Bible Book of Numbers.
Originally wild-growing throughout the Mediterranean basin, daffodils greeted spring in many countries. Their early beauty was confirmed by the Greek myth of Narcissus, whose vanity resulted in his destruction. Propagation is particularly easy, requiring only a division of bulbs every few year. Early gardeners, noticing that wildlife, such as deer and rabbits, avoid daffodils, used them as gardeners still do, planting daffodil borders to shelter more appetizing crops.
Tulips arrived in Holland in the very early 17th century, a time when, to the Dutch, nearly anything seemed possible. As one more proof of Dutch exploratory and trading skill, this Turkish novelty sparked a speculative mania that nearly destroyed the Dutch economy in the 1630s. Once the bubble burst, hybridizing tulips became a pillar of the economy that early discoveries brought to ruin.
Bulb Plants and Their Continuing Contributions
The size of the American home gardening industry suggests the relegation of most bulb plants to decorative functions. From a landscaping point of view, bulbs contribute pretty flowers but also serve to prevent erosion and hold soil over a several year period. Modern deer, rabbits, and woodchucks find daffodils as unpleasant as did their ancestors; as Americans learn more about long term and organic home gardening, they remain an excellent barrier to browsers. Medicine continues to explore the drug potential of numerous bulb-based plants. The link between humans and bulb plants continues.