Our “garden lady’s” bulb recommendations include some not-so-well-known varieties
By Lynne Galluzo
It is said that planting bulbs is the most optimistic thing you can do. Putting little brown things into the ground in the fall and expecting beautiful flowers to emerge from them in the spring is definitely an act of optimism, and the really cool thing is that it works! These days I think we could all benefit from turning off the news, going outside and doing something hopeful that is pretty much guaranteed to give great results.
However, the best known spring bulbs are not necessarily the most rewarding. Deer and rodents will eat tulip bulbs right out of the ground. Or, if they miss a few before spring, they will eat the buds off before they bloom. Daffodils are critter resistant but they multiply into dense colonies that need to be divided, have a limited color range, and the foliage, although essential, does wither and is a floppy nuisance. I have tulips and daffodils and I love them both. But there are other less famous spring bulbs that are just as delightful, and in some ways less work or gamble.
Species tulips are the wild tulips that the modern day, large tulips evolved from. Large tulips were so rare and valued in Holland in the early 17th century that individual bulbs were exchanged as currency. Remember, large is not always better: deer tend to ignore the smaller, shorter tulips; fading foliage is not as prominent; and they come in a wide variety of colors, including red, that are not available in other bulbs. And, unlike their larger offspring, these flowers will not fade; instead they multiply slowly giving you more to love every year.
You may be familiar with Crocus but you might not know that they are a member of the Iris family. The bright red thread-like stigmas from the Saffron crocus are the sole source of the seasoning and dye. One of the great things about crocus is that after they bloom, the foliage looks so much like grass that you can plant them in your yard. These earlier bloomers will be gone before mowing season. If you get your lawn aerated (or plugged), you can randomly drop a crocus bulb in those perfectly sized holes. Or, show creativity–spell out a word or create an image. Imagine “SPRING” spelled out in flowers in your yard. If you don’t have an aerated lawn, you can still plant them easily because you don’t have to dig very deep holes. They might be easier to see when you lay them out if you shake them up first in a bag of baby powder.
Galanthus, or better known as snowdrops, start the spring bloom season. They don’t mind getting snowed on and tolerate some moisture in the soil. These bulbs have been around for several centuries, they are native to the Mediterranean and were named Galanthus in 1753. I have one lovely snowdrop that is nestled at the base of a tree; it comes back every year with its pure white bell-shaped flowers nodding at the end of 5 to 8 inch stems.
Have you ever seen Fritillaria, (also goes by multiple common names such as guinea flower and snake’s head, amongst others)? You will know if you have. While there are over 100 different species, the ones that have clusters of bell-shaped flowers on stalks about three feet tall are the really fun ones. Since they are so very tall and showy you only need one or two bulbs. They do fine in my enriched clay garden soil, and appear to grow inches a day until the long lasting flowers open up in late April to early May. Their areas of origin are widespread and fascinating. Some are from the Mediterranean, some are from Asia, and some are from the Pacific Northwest. The flowers offer an array of colors; some are even truly checkered.
River of blue
Several years ago I went on a garden tour where there were amazing houses and equally amazing gardens. Other than seeing the biggest Azaleas in the world, the image that has stayed with me is a river of blue forget-me-nots. The image simulated the appearance of real water, complete with a wooden bridge. Back home in Haymarket, I sought to replicate the stunning scene and planted all sorts of small blue flowering bulbs each year by purchasing inexpensive large quantities of a variety of blue bulbs. Last spring I could really see my river of blue. Only one of the blue flowers I planted was fairly familiar to me: Muscari, or grape hyacinth. Its color ranges from white to dark blue, some white and blue together, and now even pink.
These bulbs multiply like crazy so unless you have an area that welcomes a mass of flowers it is best to stay away from them. My suggestion is to try some less aggressive options. Ipheion uniflorum, also known as spring starflower, is a great alternative. In April/May they bloom with white or blue star shaped flowers on 3 to 6 inch stalks, and are related to onions so they are resistant to deer and rodents.
Glory of snow
I have also planted Chinodoxa luciliae, which has the wonderful name of “glory of the snow.” These deer-resistant small bulbs bloom early with star-shaped flowers on 5 to 6 inch stems. They come in blue, white, or pink, and prefer well-drained soil. The prefer to be planted in full to partial sun. The great thing about these early bulbs is that they bloom before the deciduous trees have leafed out, so what might be shade later on is full to partial shade during peak bloom time.
I have planted over 500 bulbs of Scilla, or squill. While I plant the ones that bloom blue, they are also available in pale pink and white. In April, they feature small, downward-facing, vase-shaped flowers on 5 inch stems. Planting dark blue Scilla with something that blooms white at the same time (like small white daffodils) will create a stunning sight. Wow!
California white camas
Now the best for last (it’s my favorite). Camassia (commonly known as California white camas) is a bit taller than some other flowers. Mine bloom on stems that are about 18 inches tall, but I read that some grow to 32 inches. Since there are a variety of options, you can choose what is right for your location. I was first attracted to these flowers because they are native and do well in moist soil, which in the rainy spring I have a lot of. They bloom in true blue clusters of star-shaped flowers all along a strong stalk. Picture a bulb version of a short, blue Delphinium. In addition to that they bloom in May and June, the “gap” time between bulbs and perennials. They naturalize (or fill in an area) slowly, but well, and are even good cut flowers. Historical lore has it that Sacajawea cooked these for Lewis and Clark.
You may be able to find some of these bulbs at garden stores that have large assortments, but I have always bought them online. I have used John Scheepers because their information, quality, pricing, and packaging are excellent. They don’t indulge in questionable discount incentives. Now is the time to display some optimism, try something different and plant lovely surprises for next spring.