Hugh MacDonald's Calochortus Seed Planting Instructions

As taught by Hugh MacDonald to Roy West (rwest @monocot.com), at the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society's Plant Sale Grounds at Merritt College, Oakland, 1994

NEWSFLASH FEBRUARY 2008: Hugh called me this week to let me know that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated! What happy news!


In the 1980s and 1990s, Hugh MacDonald conducted a lengthy series of experiments growing Calochortus species from seeds, mostly in Berkeley near REI. He eventually had success with just about all Calochortus, plus a variety of other native bulbs and even a few exotics. Hugh documented many of his results in the early numbers of Mariposa, the journal of the Calochortus Society.

Hugh was remarkably generous with advice and seeds. He felt that our American bulbs were as fine or finer garden specimens than anything from the old world: "Americans should grow American bulbs" he claimed when I first met him. So he went out of his way to give the know-how for bulb businesses to some Native American groups, the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, and others.

In 1994, Hugh spent some time with me at the East Bay CNPS plant sale growing grounds at Merritt College in Oakland, showing me how to plant seeds of a number of Calochortus species so we could sell them at our annual sale. The seeds we planted germinated and within a few years, we had flowering bulbs of Calochortus amoenus, C. luteus, and a few other species.

Having run my course as co-chair of the EBCNPS plant sale committee a number of years ago, I have fallen out of touch of with the most of the folks I'd worked with to raise and sell bulbs for our annual sale. Thus I did not learn until this year the sad news that Hugh had died. (Not true! See above.)

I've been thinking of Hugh this fall and dug up the small notebook where I took my notes on Hugh's instructions. Those instructions and the other hints I remember from Hugh are presented here.

Please keep in mind that I've mostly met skepticism from professional propagators when describing all or parts of this information, so please do take it with a grain of salt. When I described Hugh's soil mix to the most talented horticulturist I know, he laughed out loud. But Hugh's manifest success is worth documenting. I'd be pleased to hear from anyone else with supporting or contradicting evidence about Hugh's technique.

Hugh's Standard Planting Box

Use 2x6 pressure-treated wood:

Use shorter pieces as end pieces. Screw two of the longer pieces to the edges of the shorter pieces for the bottom. Screw two longer pieces to ends of shorter pieces as sides. Leave crack but not too much space between adjacent pieces for drainage. A diagram would be helpful here -- I'll try to add one some time.

When assembled correctly, this creates a rot-resistant box that is just liftable when filled and planted, with an interior that is approximately 24" long, 10.5" wide, and 5.5" deep.

Hugh's "UCD" Planting Mix Recipe

Note: #3 coarse sand used to be easily available from RMC Lonestar in 100 lb. bags. I've had a hard time finding it in recent years, and have had to substitute #2-5/8 or somesuch -- not as satisfying as #3, but much better than just #2.

Planting Calochortus Seeds

Starting from the bottom of the box, filling to the top:

  1. 1" of pure UCD
  2. Large handful of Lilly Miller's Bulb-and-Bloom dry bulb fertilizer spread on top
  3. 2.75" soil that has been mixed with a handful of Bulb-and-Bloom mixed in
  4. .5" of pure UCD
  5. 400 fresh seeds or 600 older seeds
  6. 25" UCD mixed with fungicide

Additional notes:

Bonus: Hugh MacDonald's Lily and Erythronium Mix

March 2, 1996

Hugh: "Heh. That didn't add up to a full 1/1 part!"

February 6, 2008