Gardeners are always looking for something new, but sometimes the old, unnamed varieties work just as well.
Most gardeners are not snobs. We don't insist on memorizing long, Latin names of every plant we grow. We sometimes don't even remember the common names, often mixing them up and calling our plants by each other's name just like we do our children and our pets. We don't turn up our noses at marigolds and petunias simply because they are ''common.''
So the day my husband and I walked into the garden center last fall and my eyes fell on the displays of unnamed tulips, daffodils and Alliums, I didn't care that there were no identifying species names attached to the plastic bags that held three to five bulbs. They were simply labeled ''Red Tulips,'' ''Daffodils,'' and ''Allium.'' I grabbed several packages of all of the different bulbs, carried them to the register and then home. They sat in their bags with swiss cheese-like holes for air circulation on the patio table for a good two weeks, until one day my husband called me at work and said, ''Where do you want me to plant these bulbs?"
There's no way I'm going to turn down an offer like that, so I said ''Put them wherever you want. Use your own judgment.''
And then I quickly forgot the bulbs, the plantings and even the purchase.
Here's where the mystery begins. It wasn't dark, nor was it a stormy night. In fact, it was a lovely spring morning when I looked out the window into the backyard garden and saw three lovely tulips blooming that I didn't remember seeing the previous spring. Maybe I planted them years ago and they just mustered up enough strength to rebloom, I thought.
It didn't matter. They were lovely to look at, and I enjoyed watching them every day until their blossoms faded and each curled, darkened petal fell to the ground. All that was left were the naked stems and yellowing leaves. I knew I should get out there and cut the spent flower stems, but I didn't do it. Like the bulbs that were planted the previous fall, I didn't give them another thought.
Until the day I looked out the window again and saw the most amazing thing. The naked flower stalks had suddenly come alive. They had burst into what looked like hundreds of stems, some short and some long, spraying out in all different directions. At the end of those stems were small, star-shaped flowers. The tulips, I assumed, had gone to seed.
I had never before seen tulips go to seed. I never gave them the chance, often cutting the stems immediately after the petals fell. But it was so exciting to see this explosion happening that I couldn't cut them down now. The uneven growth, the long and short of all of those stems, gave the illusion of a mini-fireworks display. Is this what all tulips do, I wondered? If so, I'll never cut them back again.
And then I got a clever idea. I would hold a little contest among my Internet garden friends to see if any of them could guess the source of this amazing, exploding tulip. I painstakingly took a close-up photo of one of the tiny, lavender flowers on the tip of one of the stalks. The rest of the stalks were blurred in the background of the photo, leaving just enough for the imagination. I posted the photo and offered a prize to the first person to identify the plant.
I grinned at their guesses. No one could figure it out. Some gave up without even trying. Others offered weak descriptions of plants that grew in their zones, but not mine. And then one answer came in that burst my smug little bubble.
''It's Allium christophii,'' a friend wrote. ''I have them in my garden.''
Allium? But I know I saw tulips blooming there, I thought. She must be wrong.
It was my contest, and I knew the answer. I couldn't be wrong. But after spending a good bit of time browsing the Internet, looking up descriptions and photos of Allium christophii, a plant that I believed only flowered as perfect, round globes. And then I found a Web site that clinched it. ''Also called fireworks plant ...'' the description began.
Could it be there is an Allium that doesn't bloom as I thought I knew? Could it be that my husband had planted Allium bulbs along with tulip bulbs last fall? When I asked him, he didn't remember.
But the flowers on the tips of those multi-faceted stalks were most assuredly Allium blossoms. The cluster looked exactly like a Lilliputian version of a fireworks display. It wasn't an exploding tulip at all, but a perfectly respectable ornamental onion that was the most unusual I had ever seen.
Even common plants can be uncommon.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.