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How Is A Bulb Like A Squirrel?

MAYBE you don't think you have much in common with a squirrel. Apart from being able to climb trees, of course. After all, you don't have a bushy tail. I'm sure you'd tell me you haven't got a bushy tail. Or at least I'm fairly sure you don't have one ... do you? And as for your whiskers - well, I don't think you actually have any whiskers. And I can't imagine you are gray and hairy all over, or even red and hairy from top to toe. No - I believe you - you're not in the least like a squirrel. Except, perhaps, in one way. You know the way squirrels store nuts in the ground to get ready for the long winter? Well some humans can be found behaving rather like that too, round about the Octoberish, Novemberish, Decemberish kind of time. As a matter of fact, if you happened to be passing and looked through my garden gate just at the right moment, you might spot this six-foot man scratching and digging in the ground and apparently hiding acorns, beechnuts, and hazelnuts in odd corners. You might easily think that I am doing it so that I have something I can dig up and eat when times get hard. But those hard roundish little things I am popping into holes aren't nuts. They're bulbs. No, they're not light bulbs. I'm not that nutty. Those sort of glass bulbs I do generally remember to fix into light sockets for lighting-up purposes. I don't usually bury them in the garden. The bulbs I'm talking about are ones that grow. You know what I mean? Bulbs that turn into flowers - red and pink tulips, yellow daffodils, tiny white snowdrops, bright blue scillas, purple or orange crocuses. A month or two later I might just possibly be planting bulbs to eat: Those are onions, of course, and you plant little ones early in the year and pull them up months later when they are big and round and beautiful. But at this time of year it's flower bulbs. Most of them are roundish at the bottom and pointed at the top (if you have them the right way up), but some are round - so trying to find their top and bottom is tricky. It's best to plant them the right way up, but if, by mistake, you don't, they'll still grow, curling round themselves from underneath! Some flower bulbs - like the tulips - have brown dry skins which crack, slip off, and leave them looking white and chilly underneath. Some (like crocuses) have hairs like little coconuts, and some are nice and shiny and scaly (like daffodils, which are also called "narcissuses"). Some are black and crinkly (like anemones), as if they've been cooked too long. Others are reddish and some are purplish and some are silvery. And some are smaller and some are bigger and a fair few are in between. They're all " bulbs," more or less, though fussy people call some of them, with different shapes, "corms" and "tubers" and even "rhizomes." But "bulbs" mostly is fine. Come to think of it, perhaps it is bulbs - or plants that grow from bulbs - that are really like squirrels, rather than the people who plant them. Squirrels "store" their food for the winter. Well, bulbs do the same for their plants. A bulb is like a food store, a neatly packaged larder, filled with just about everything the plant needs to feed it and make it grow when the time is right. And for many, many bulbs, the time is right at the end of winter, when the cold begins to go and the snow starts to melt and the sun is getting stronger every day. As soon as the soil and air and the light are right, the bulb quickly shoots up a small green tongue. This tongue grows longer and taller, until the time comes for it to unwrap its bud. Sometimes the bud comes out of a packing that is like the brown paper around a parcel. Then its bud fattens up until it's time for it to open out as a flower. The point is that plants with bulbs at the bottom of their stems can grow up and flower quicker than many other plants when the time is right just because most of the food they need is already in the bulb. It's like a battery, or gas in your tank. So well-provided-for are bulb plants that some grow quite happily on nothing but water. There's even one kind - the colchicum, or autumn crocus - that can send up stems and flowers with nothing around its bulb but thin air! Two bulbs people grow around Christmas time are hyacinths and paper-white narcissuses. Also cyclamen, which have round, green leaves with patterned markings, and flowers in pink or white that look like shuttlecocks. All these bulbs grow and flower well indoors. Hyacinths and paper-whites are easy to grow, and both have strong perfume in their flowers - whew! (Actually, most people love their smell). And you can grow them in soil like cyclamen, or you can grow them so their roots go down into water. People plant paper-whites on top of small pebbles in a bowl and pour water into the pebbles. Hyacinths - which can be blue, creamy-yellow, white, or pink when they flower - can be grown in special glasses, quite tall, and rounded out at the top to make a place like a cup where the bulb can sit. You can see the white roots, all tangly, as they grow down into the water. (You should keep filling this water up, but never let it touch the bulb itself, only its bottom, where the roots come out.) Some people sa y you can put some charcoal in the water to keep it "sweet to stop it going moldy and green - but the charcoal floats and doesn't look very good. So the best thing is to change the water now and then without disturbing the roots too much. This is difficult, but I'm sure you could do it. It's no more difficult than climbing trees. One extraordinary bulb - a great big fat one - is the hippeastrum. Sorry about the name. Someone really ought to come up with a good easy English name for this brilliant plant. Actually a lot of people still call it "amaryllis" (which isn't really right) - though even that isn't very easy to say or spell. Anyway, this giant bulb can be planted now, at this time of year, in the house, in a big-enough pot, with its top just sticking out of the soil. Water it. Be patient for a week or two. And then!!! Just as you are beginning to think it's dead, I promise you, you'll be in for a wonderful time watching it send up its thick green stem, and maybe a leaf as well. It grows so quickly once it starts that you can measure the difference with a ruler each day. It gets taller and taller. And then - well, you won't believe what it's like. It bowls you over. We had one last winter that had two stems, and on the top of these it produced eight gigantic bright red flowers with vivid yellow fingery things called stamens in their centers. Can you imagine a flower that looked like the blare of a trumpet - or eight trumpets all at once?! This is it. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed. Only don't do what one small girl did. She got so excited when the first flower opened that she went and shoved her face right into the middle of it to see what it smelled like. It didn't smell like anything. But her face was smudgy all over with the bright yellow powder that covers the stamens. She was quite a sight. This yellow powder is harmless, but it's meant to stick to bees. It's called pollen, and insects like bees get it stuck to their legs and then rub it off onto other flowers to fertilize them so they can make seeds. (If such seed s are planted, they will eventually turn into bulbs, but this can take years.) To humans - and maybe, for all I know, to squirrels too - the hippeastrum is a plant to stand back from, stare at, and make whistling, gasping, and "wow!" noises toward. And it's just as much fun watching it as it grows and develops as it is looking at it in astonishment when it is fully - truly trumpetish - in flower.

Kidspace is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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