Horticulture Highlight: Scilla siberica

November 30, 2011

The earth turns its northern face
                closer to the sun
as March delivers a raw and damp April.
Everything is restless and impatient,
like small children
made to sit a little too long.
-Donald Everett Axinn

One of the most impatient of springtime plants at Mount Auburn is Scilla siberica, Siberian squill. Its brilliant azure-blue flowers are one of our most striking springtime sights. The genus Scilla is represented by over eighty species of bulbous herbs native to Asia, Europe and Africa. Of these about a half-dozen species are planted for horticultural use in the United States. Scilla siberica is the most popular mainly due to its ability to produce a beautiful blue carpet just when we are all weary of our visually subdued winter landscape.

These small plants have two-to-five strap-shaped, half-inch wide leaves that are four-to-six inches long. Each nodding flower has six deep blue-colored petals arranged as if they were half-opened ribs of an umbrella. There may be one to five flowers on each arching floral stalk arising three-four inches from the center of the leaves. The floral impact may last two to three weeks, the longest persistence occurring with cool temperatures.  As poet James Schuyler wrote in his Hymn to Life, “…Consider April, early April, wet snow falling into the blue squills that underneath a beech make an illusory lake, a haze of blue with depth to it…”

The genus name Scilla is a Greek word meaning to injure or harm and alludes to toxic properties found within some of the European species. We may also derive meaning from several versions of Scylla found in Greek mythology. Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867, lot #2308, Bellwort Path) popularized these versions in his The Age of Fable which was later compiled with his other writings and published as Bulfinch’s Mythology.   In one classical version Glaucus , a fisherman turned into a fish-like creature is smitten by a Sicilian beauty named Scylla who runs away from his advances. Glaucus’ appeal for help from the enchantress Circe, who liked him too well herself, led to Circe transforming Scylla into a monster serpent that devoured mariners who came within its grasp until later being turned into a rock which continued to be a terror to mariners.

A different fable presents King Nisus and his daughter Scylla. King Nisus is defending his city from a hostile army led by Minos, king of Crete, which has stretched into a six month siege. It was decreed by fate that the city would not be taken as long as a certain purple lock of hair of King Nisus remained on his head. Scylla meanwhile became excited by her admiration for the enemy King Minos and while all slept she entered her father’s bedchamber and cut off and delivered the lock to her father’s enemy. There is no happy ending as King Minos was repulsed by her actions cursing that neither earth nor sea would yield her a resting place. A pitying deity changed her into a bird.

Nonetheless we encourage you to leave ideas of jealousy and duplicitous behavior aside as you visit Mount Auburn to revel in our Scilla siberica displays found at many locations throughout our landscape in March and early April.

*This Horticulture Highlight was originally published in the April 2010 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.  

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

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