The beautiful Scilla peruviana is just coming into flower here at Langthorns, its head of intense indigo to violet blue flowers looking like a starry upturned cone on top of a short stem with a base of fleshy leaves. It has various common names: Peruvian Squill, Cuban Lily, and Hyacinth of Peru; although surprisingly it doesn’t originate from Peru at all, but is a native of damp grassy sites in southern Europe.
Its name derives from a misunderstanding – the bulbs arrived in England in 1607 (at the port of Bristol) on a ship from Spain that was called The Peru and it then became recorded by the great botanist Carolus Clusius and entered into the history books as having coming from Peru!
This particular variety of Scilla was one of the first of its species to be recognised as being of ornamental value in Europe - its first known recording being in 1592 - and many more varieties and species followed. In fact the popularity of bulbs during the seventeenth century was immense – we have all heard of Tulipmania (which was at its height around 1634/37) but the craze for all sorts of fancy bulbs (such as varieties of Crocus, Narcissi, Iris, Fritillaria, Galanthus and Hyacinth) was similarly intense, with fashionable gentlemen creating formal and often intricate flower beds to show off their prized collection.
The style of those flower beds was very different to what we are used to today, with each plant being shown off individually, with a lot of space and bare earth around, the point being to admire the owner’s ordered collection of specimens rather than his artistic planting style. Just imagine how exciting it must have been to look at all those exotic and colourful rarities from strange lands growing in cold, grey England, and to be able to discuss with friends and neighbours the adventures that must have been encountered, and the merits of each individual flower. Then think again of that wonderful Scilla peruviana erupting like a little blue firework in that bare soil four hundred years ago and still today looking as fresh and exciting and as exotic as ever it did.