Anna Pavord loves bulbs more than I do


It’s embarrassing to admit that the only Pavord book I know is
The Tulip, but I suspect I am not alone. Nonetheless, she’s written a lot of
others, including Plant Partners, The Flowering Year, The New Kitchen
, and more. I think my favorite title among her books is Searching
for Order
. It’s actually a reprint of an earlier title, The Naming of Names.

 The Tulip is still Pavord’s most famous title, and it is a
fascinating read, but she’s just written a book all bulb aficionados, fanatics, and obsessives
must have. Pavord's new book is called Bulb. It describes 600 different bulbs, with
images of every one, giving practical, opinionated advice as well as historical
background and basic descriptions. The images may be pure porn, but the text
brings you back down to earth, as follows: “In the lilies listed below you will
not find any of the new dwarfed kinds (which I think are foul—lacking in any of
the grace and elegance with which nature endowed the family).”

Pavord (photo by George Wright)

I talked to the author about Bulb over the phone on Friday; here
are some excerpts from our conversation, as well as some images of Pavord’s
favorite bulbs, as found in my garden. As Pavord required, each of the 600 flowers in the book has its own gorgeous photograph by Andrew Lawson.

 As far as I’m concerned, this is a great big book on bulbs,
and it’s wonderful. I don't feel like I need to know anything else.

(Laughs) Don’t you think the photographs are fantastic? I
started out thinking, when I began with this book, that it should be like a
jewel box and that everywhere you looked, these things would be gleaming out at
you saying "Look you’ve just got to have me!" But for that you need a very
particular type of photograph, a beautiful sensuous image …  Also, quite honestly, although I
started out with this idea that every one of these 600 bulbs in the book should
have its own image, I never imagined that I’d actually be allowed to do it.
… They’ve [publishers Mitchell
Beazley]been so amazingly generous. 

The henryi lilium and other species lilies get favored treatment in

On the cover you have one of my favorite tulips of all time,
Prinses Irene.

Yes, and who can describe it; it’s so difficult with Prinses
Irene, isn’t it, the way those purple flushes climb up the back of the orange
petals.  It’s an amazingly complex
tulip, that. And beautifully scented. It is a fabulous creature.

We know you for The Tulip. This is very different.

 The Tulip was like a biography; it just happened to be about
a flower rather than a person. I was telling its story—where it was born, where
it had been, the adventures it had had. That was very much a narrative; there
was a story there, an incredible story. 
But this bulb book was in my mind always as a reference book, a book
that contained enough beautiful bulbs for the whole of a gardening life. If you
planted 10 new things a year you’d have 60 years of gardening before you would run
out. This was not a book where I had to worry about the construction or the
narrative because I just started at A and worked my way all the way through to

… These are incredibly beautiful things. We don’t need to
know about their structure and their form the way we do with shrubs, trees, and
herbaceous perennials. A bulb just exists to flower; that’s all it does. It’s
like the best sort of dinner guest: it arrives on time, it does its fabulous
thing, it sparkles, and then it goes before you get tired of it. Who could
expect anything more of a plant? And that’s why these pictures need to just
concentrate on the flower, because they’re not pretending to give you anything

I grow both the Prinses Irene and this double version, Orange Princess.

How comprehensive are you in this book? How much have you

I don’t know. There are 2000 narcissus alone. Could you lift
up a book that had pictures of 2000 narcissus in it? For 40 years, I’ve kept
card indexes of everything I’ve grown, so there was a lot of information about
bulbs I’ve grown to work with, but there was no way one volume—even one as
heavy as this one—could cover all of it. I felt 600 bulbs was enough to keep a
gardener going. It includes all the things you’d expect to find like the crocus,
the alliums, the camassias, the daffodils, and it also actually tries to include
things that I’ve grown and been intrigued by, like the veltheimias, the
bellavalias, the gloriosa superba, and that’s because one likes to include
things you don’t see around so much, if there’s a good reason to grow them. If
people have time and if they should be so inclined, I’d say why not have a go?
At the end of the book, for example, there are zephyranthus and zigadenus,
neither of which I’d grown until I’d started the book, but I’m just so glad
because both of them—for completely different reasons—were enchanting plants to


All the erythronium varieties are celebrated in Bulb.

So, are tulips still your favorites?

I’ll never be able to leave tulips behind. The class has so
much staggering variety in it. Those genetic pools from which the tulip has
come—how amazing that a single flower can do so many things. I suppose that
it’s the species tulips that I’ve grown to love the most because they do settle
and stay in a garden in a way that the bigger varieties sometimes don’t. The tulipa
orphanidea Whittallii remains way out there as my number one bulb. No picture does it justice, because it has this
extraordinary perfect form with the pointed petals meeting in the center to
make a perfect bud. And then you get this plating of cream on the outside of
the tangerine, toffee-colored petals. And if you look inside, you would see
that there is this beautiful smudgy olive green base in the bottom. It is a
thing of such staggering finesse and beauty.

What about people who give up on bulbs because they don’t
always return year after year?

Look, come on, there is no better value than bulbs. Even if
they don’t come back, you have gotten your $5 worth, haven’t you? When I
finally got out to Kazakstan, I did realize that even out there, even in the
cradle of the tulip, it is absolutely wrong to expect every single tulip to
produce a flower every single year. This is not how it is in the wild. It’s a
fantastic effort to get that flower out, and when they’ve done it, it then
takes them 5-6 years to build up the strength to flower again.

I find that the single late tulips have old blood in them
and are good at settling into clumps, where, after 5-6 years, you have the
impression of a good group of tulips. But even with one season, to me it’s still money very well
spent. Don’t give up on bulbs.


Which is a good point to end this interview excerpt, because
I agree. I treat fully half of my bulbs as annuals; the only ones I depend on
for return are the species tulips, the lilies, the galanthus, the daffodils, and a few other
ephemerals. I probably go further than Pavord in my prodigal attitude toward
these plants, though I know she plants hundreds each year, especially since she
has a new, better-draining garden in Dorset. Her new obsession is iris. I think
we may know what book to expect next. 

I have used my own photographs here partly because I didn't have good digitals of the ones in the book, but, more important, because my attraction to this book is based so much on the fact that many of the bulbs in it are my favorites too. 

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. The last gift a beloved mentor-friend-client gave me was The Tulip. It had just been published.

    She’s also the one turning me on to Beverley Nichols books.

    I follow that mentoring and strive to matchmake garden books with gardening friends.

    Can’t wait to read this new title.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. Fantastic writing and overview of the new book “Blub” and some insight on the brilliant author Anna Parvord.

    I’m so glad that you asked the question , ” How comprehensive are you in this book? How much have you covered? “.
    This is exactly what I needed to know.
    As one who has dwindling limited library space I scrutinize new books to make sure that the book is really warranted and is not duplicating an older book that I may have.
    I usually reach for “Unwins Flowering Bulbs in Color” , a 1973 published English book for the more common bulbs and then rely on a book from the Southern Hemisphere for the other more unusual and exotic bulbs that do well in my temperate zone 9 garden.
    I’ll definitely be visiting a good bookstore in the future to check this book out soon.
    Anna Pavord is a gifted writer.

  3. Well you’re both making me very sorry I didn’t buy any new bulbs this year, but only because we expect to move. Your photo has inspired me to deck the next place in Erythroniums, native and not. God knows what I’ll do after seeing 600 sensuous bulb photographs! Thanks for a great interview.

  4. No No NO NO NO… you know what this is gonna do to me! Every two or three years my gardening style shifts from one direction to another. Hostas were replaced with Ferns, Trees were removed and edibles took over, then salvias and agastaches, then cupheas, then tropical fruit trees in pots and back to edibles but only heirlooms. When will it end?

    Thanks. And Christmas is only days away.

  5. I’ve been a Pavord fan for years. I still reach for Plant Partners to get me ‘unstuck’, The Tulip was a great read as was her column in Gardens Illustrated. They were in fact must reads…this one will be too…as soon as my library can get it for me.

  6. So many books, so little garden. This sounds like a winner, and you were so lucky to be able to interview her. Thanks.

    And thank you to Michelle for “Blub” which added some welcome silliness to the end of my day. I’m still laughing.

  7. I’m laughing my head off over this line…”I felt 600 bulbs was enough to keep a gardener going.” I think I can keep going on a lot less than that!

    Great interview!


  8. So if I start planting next year, I should get through her book at age 86. Sounds doable.

    At my last job, I put Anna Pavord on hold. My boss was aghast–Put Anna Pavord on hold?! She’s doing us a favor and calling from England and you put her on hold! I was ignorant and didn’t know who she was. Oh, the shame.

  9. Although I amazed by the omission of Fritillaria meleagris as one of the most endearing and endurable – I can’t wait to get my hands on Pavord’s Bulbs.

    Dianne B

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