|Like an intrepid Indiana Jones, Chris Wiesinger of Southern Bulbs is out to preserve Southern horticultural heritage by harvesting heirloom Texas bulbs. Here, with his favorite farm truck, he creates an image reminiscent of the past he’s trying to protect.|
While studying horticulture at Texas A&M, Chris Wiesinger put together a business plan as a class assignment. He proposed a comprehensive catalog of rare, warm-climate, heirloom bulbs that once flourished throughout Texas. This flora bloomed back when the early pioneers rolled across Texas’ eastern backland prairie in their wagons. They are bulbs that thrive with very little water, no artificial fertilizers, and don’t require a hard freeze or chill during the winter to bloom in spring. Also called “antiques” or “classics,” these bulbs produce day lilies, spider lilies, hyacinths, and the salaciously named Naked Ladies. While they were once quite common, flourishing along rural roads and in abandoned fields, these fascinating indigenous flowers are now depleted. Their habitat has been destroyed to make way for new home sites and strip malls.
Wiesinger and friend Brad Gaultney came up with the plan after spotting some unusual bulbs flowering around old home sites in East Texas. With homeowners’ permission, they dug them up and replanted them on land leased from a local farmer. Later, the bulbs found a home on their own acreage. And so began Southern Bulbs, one of the Southwest’s first specialty bulb catalogs to broker heirloom bulbs. Bulbs are available online at southernbulbs.com and through a variety of nurseries statewide, including North Haven Gardens, Redenta’s, and Nicholson-Hardie Nursery. “Antique bulbs are so popular because they are harvested in Texas, and they will do well when replanted in your yard,” Nicholson-Hardie manager Bob Wilson says.
Some three years after starting the business, Wiesinger, now 26, most often wakes up on the floor of his office in Golden in East Texas. The “office” is a trailer stationed on Southern Bulbs’ 22 acres teeming with bright Texas tulips, Chinese Sacred lilies, Double Romans, and dozens of other hard-to-find bulbs. Once awake, he places the couch cushions that double as a mattress back on the tiny loveseat that occupies the corner of the room and tidies up the small space. Wiesinger has a cabin about five minutes down FM 779, but without television, Internet, or phone service, it’s easier to crash at the office. His days are long—in summer the chores in the bulb fields are only occasionally cut short by the brutal heat. But he’s fulfilled. “Gardening is an extension of myself,” he explains. “People who use our bulbs like to find things that fit with the environment, instead of trying to alter the environment to make something fit; they appreciate the beauty around them.”
|Chris Wiesinger (left) and Brad Gaultney stand proud in their holding barn among crates of this year’s prized supply of precious, hand-harvested bulbs ready for packaging and delivery.|
Others are starting to take notice. Both House & Garden and The New York Times have featured him, dubbing him the “bulb hunter,” a sort of Indiana Jones type who gets his kicks from unearthing lost bulbs instead of treasure.
Even with all the attention, Wiesinger remains unaffected. He uses “ma’am” and “sir” constantly, and when seated at a local steakhouse, he asks that everyone bow their heads in prayer. He rents a barn from a local sweet potato farmer, stacked high with crates of dormant bulbs. At night, when the earth cools down and toads the size of tricycle wheels scatter in his truck’s headlights, he likes to examine and study the different bulbs. “Look at this one–when you polish it up it turns gold,” he says, rubbing a muddy bulb between his fingers. Like magic, the grubby oval turns opalescent and looks like a gemstone in the palm of his hand. Even after three years, he gets excited. “I love polishing these,” he enthuses. It’s these bulbs, all rescued or “hunted” depending on how you look at it, that turn into Wiesinger’s crop of narcissus, jonquils, gladiolas, and crinums. “They look dainty, but those are the ones to breed. They are so much tougher than the showstoppers. You get these 2- to 3-feet flower stalks that bloom for a month and a half,” he says.
|(clockwise from top left) Long-stemmed Byzantine Gladiola; Southern Fall Crocus, which blossoms into a bright yellow flower commonly used in rock gardens; a trio of Blue French Roman Hyacinth bulbs, which bloom in a light blue hue—the resulting flower is often used in French perfumes for its spicy and sweet scent; a Spring Snowflake bulb ready for planting.|
These blooms last much longer than the flowers that are not suited for the harsh Texas climate, which die off soon after they open up. The earth has handed down Wiesinger’s flowers from generation to generation. He believes they are our last link to our Texas ancestors, which is why he not only wants Southern Bulbs to be noted for its revolutionary business model, but also its efforts to preserve Southern horticultural heritage. “It’s all about patience. It’s all about delayed gratification,” he says. “It’s all about recognizing true beauty, and it’s so much more fulfilling.”
Wiesinger continues to search for other avenues to spread his message. He’s recently teamed up with Royal Horticulture Society Gold Medalist Ann Swan, a botanical artist who set aside her five-year waiting list for new commissions, to create limited-edition bulb prints to document the detailed beauty of Wiesinger’s heirloom bulbs.
|A pink sunrise provides a breathtaking backdrop to lush greenery and glassy water—a big reason Chris Wiesinger loves living in the East Texas countryside. The boathouse is the perfect setting to take it all in.|
While we talk, Wiesinger sums everything up: “So, this is my life. It’s not what a 26-year-old is supposed to be doing.” But unlike many mercurial 20-somethings, he has been very much in control of his destiny. “Chris is a very talented, very bright guy,” says Bill Welch, a horticulture professor at A&M. “He was very in demand when he graduated; a lot of people wanted him. He could’ve gone where ever he wanted, but he wanted to do this.”
The bulb fields are exhausting work, but he’s looking to preserve the bulbs for generations to come. During October, he and his team are busy replanting in above-average temperatures. They have no choice. “We harvest what we need to sell—the remainder stays in the ground to multiply for the future,” Gaultney says.