Long before the winter-weary gardener spots the first robin, she dreams of fields of tulips and thickets of daffodils. It is only the flowers of bulbs that herald the dawn of spring, not the perennials, not the annuals – they arrive late to this party. No, it’s the bulbs that give us hope and make us smile. But bulb choices are not limited to crocuses, daffodils and tulips; the bulb world is so much richer and more diverse. So before you succumb to the newest Dutch tulip or double narcissus, pause and consider some of the more unusual members of the family.
What gardener doesn’t thrill to the sight of tiny white Snowdrops poking up through a late winter dusting of snow? Even before winter is shown the door the vigorous naturalizer Galanthus nivalis braves the cold to greet another spring with nodding flowers and long skinny leaves
A close relative, the Summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum,
has cup-like flowers whose white petals are decorated with a whimsical chartreuse dot. Plant this sweetie in clumps and your garden will be a carpet of white
A native of Turkey Chionodoxa luciliae, Glory-of-the-Snow, also blooms early in the season sending up lilac and white star-shaped flowers. The foliage fades right after blooming and generally goes dormant in late spring. As with all bulbs allow the leaves to ripen; they produce the food for next year
A shot of yellow lights up every garden, and one of the few yellow flowering bulbs – apart from daffodils, of course, is Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, whose buttercup yellow flowers rest atop a collar of deeply lobed green leaves. Soak the bulbs overnight before planting, and set them 2-3 inches deep and about 3 inches apart. Under woodland conditions, moist soil and dappled shade, they too will naturalize for you.
Any discussion of spring-blooming bulbs is incomplete without a tip of the hat to the Grape Hyacinth, Muscari spp.,
which hails from Southern Europe and the Caucasus. Compact pyramids of tight royal blue blossoms rise on sturdy stems above floppy green foliage that first appears in fall and lasts through all but the roughest winters.
Another bulb in the cool blue spectrum, Scilla siberica bursts forth with bell-like sky blue or pale lavender flowers right after the Snow Drops. A real toughie Scilla is an ideal candidate for a northern rock garden or plant the bulbs in masses for a dramatic statement
For a vibrant shot of color in the bulb garden consider the Anemone blanda cultivars. These daisy-like flowers are supported on 8 inch stems and come in a range of hot pink, royal purple and cool white; cut a handful for your first spring bouquet.
The hardy Windflower is deer resistant (note: not deer proof – that’s an oxymoron), and to give this Grecian native a good head start, soak the bulbs for 8 hours before planting.
The top of the stately Fritillaria imperialis is crowned with a ring of bright orange or yellow blooms drooping down from tufts of dark green leaves.
Rising 3 to 4 feet tall, this beauty deserves a spot at the back of the bulb garden, or if the garden can’t support such a bold statement substitute the dainty F. meleagris or Checkered Lily, a charming choice for a woodland nook.
Like all members of the Lily family, the Fritillarias prefer cool roots so give them a hefty dressing of mulch.
Another member of the Lily family Ornithogalum arabicum or Arabian Starflower puts on the best show in Southern zones; in Northern climes the bulb is “half-hardy”.
As May fades into June the Arabian Starflower bursts forth with clusters of highly fragrant snow-white petals ringing a black eye; cut a few to add pop to a late spring bouquet.
The final selection of spring-flowering bulbs that break out of the box is the dramatic Allium giganteum, Giant Onion,
with flower heads as big as pompoms that range in color from deep purple to pale lilac- think giant grape Tootsie Pops.
Relatively drought-tolerant and deer resistant – deer are not fond of onions – they put on their spectacular show in early summer. Another species A. schubertii, produces flowers that resemble explosions of pink sparklers; this fireworks display is a show stopper in any bulb garden.
Now for the basics of planting bulbs: Dig a hole 2-3 times the height of the bulb, and plant the bulb pointed side up – now this may seem like an insult to one’s intelligence but enough encounters with experienced gardeners whose bulbs never emerged because they were planted upside down warrants the risk of insult. For maximum impact plant an odd number of bulbs in a circle, and if you believe in the magic of fertilizer, add a small scoop of bone meal to each hole to help the bulb get started. Once flowering has finished let the leaves ripen and die back naturally; this is the bulbs’ food manufacturing mechanism. One final note: you can plant bulbs as late as Christmas if the soil is not frozen.
By making a case for including some of the more unusual bulbs in a spring garden, this is not a call to abandon those cheerful stalwarts, the tulips and daffodils. Rather it is a call to expand the garden’s horizons and add some visual variety before the perennials and annuals move to the center stage.