Snowdrops, Scilla, and Winter Aconite
by Randy Best
The so-called minor bulbs are a major source of color and spring beauty. These early risers will awaken your garden and announce the arrival of a new growing season.
Good things come in small packages, it's true, and when it comes to bulbs, good can be defined as reliable, affordable and beautiful. Bulbous plants are found all over the world, particularly in areas where the long, dry summers encouraged the evolution of this unique design. A bulb preserves the life of the plant during adverse growing conditions while maximizing a brief period of favorable weather to store energy in a bulbous compressed stem. For the sake of simplicity, here we speak of bulbs to include those plants which store energy in underground organs. So in addition to true bulbs we include corms and rhizomes.
Generally speaking, bulbs are undemanding and easy to grow, especially for the first season. Future success depends on how closely the environment matches the ideal environment required by the particular plant. For example, daffodils are well-suited to our climate here in the Washington area and will grow and multiply for many years.
Tulips, on the other hand, will usually deliver one magnificent display the first season. Subsequent displays diminish as the plants struggle to survive the adverse conditions of a strange land. Most gardeners, while well aware that some bulbs are a "one shot deal," consider them a bargain nevertheless. Like annuals, bulbs deliver big blooms for your buck.
The flowering season for bulbs extends from late winter straight on through the fall. Pots of bulbs can be easily "forced" into bloom indoors in winter, which means you can have blooming bulbs out of season.
Just about everyone is familiar with the well known major bulbs, such as daffodils and tulips. There are, however, dozens of minor bulbs that are wonderful additions to the garden, and a few of the spring flowering ones are introduced here. Keep in mind that just about all the minor bulbs mentioned below are well suited to our climate and will persist and even multiply for many years with a minimum of preparation and care.
Among the first blooms of the calendar year, the diminutive snowdrop is a true harbinger of spring - delicate nodding white bells defy the harsh weather of late winter.
Another early-bloomer is winter aconite, with its cheerful yellow flowers held upward to greet the gray winter skies.
Scilla (wood hyacinth), although sometimes referred to as English bluebells, blooms in shades of pink and white as well as the traditional blue. Although at home in either full sun or light shade, they do prefer a well-drained soil. Once established, scilla are more or less permanent, and a mature clump will produce up to a dozen flower spikes each spring.
Iris reticulata, Chinodoxa and Grape Hyacinth
Iris reticulata will multiply and persist for years, especially if the soil is improved. Plant them along a path you frequent to appreciate their delightful fragrance. All of these early bulbs are charming planted in naturalized drifts, a joy to behold for winter-weary passersby. Waves of flowering bulbs bloom in March, April and May, bringing a mixed chorus of spring flowers.
In addition to the common tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, consider planting chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), a favorite of bulb gardeners. Plant a quantity of them in a sunny location (under a deciduous tree works well, by the time the tree leafs out the bulbs are finishing up), and they will multiply and return each year.
Grape hyacinths, when planted in generous drifts, will make a splendid pool of color. The tiny, tubular blue bells, which are clustered along the length of the flowering shaft, are too small to be appreciated one at a time.
Crocuses, Anemone, and Fritillaria
Crocuses are perhaps the most familiar spring-blooming minor bulb, as well as the most colorful. They grow up to six inches tall and bloom in white and shades of blue, purple, lavender, orange, yellow and gold. Some flowers are bi-colored. Squirrels love crocus corms, as do voles. If you have a local population you should consider taking some precautions, such as planting in raised beds, nestling the bulbs into crushed stone in the planting hole or using repellants, such as Vole Block®.
Anemones deserve more attention. (In particular, I'm referring to Anemone nemorosa, a rhizomatous plant, not to be confused with Japanese anemone, a perennial.) Anemona nemorosa are well-suited to a woodland setting where they will carpet the ground with ferny foliage and produce 6- to 9-inch stems bearing fresh, poppy-like blooms in white, lavender, blue and pink. The rhizomes can be confusing, so have an expert show you which side goes up.
The fritillary family is a diverse genus featuring one of the most imposing of flowering bulbs, the 2- to 4-foot crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), with its large, nodding flowers that hang below a green crest of whorled leaves, and the checkered lily (F. meleagris) is a delightful curiosity that grows just 12 inches in damp woodland soil (although it does not appreciate heavy clay) and features nodding flowers with purple checks! Both are prized by bulb fanciers.
All of these bulbs, whether planted en masse for a bold impact, or artfully integrated into the landscape will fill the garden with a kaleidoscope of colorful blooms. And with a little extra care, they will stick around for many seasons of living delight.
Snowdrops photo credit. Scilla photo credit. Winter aconite photo credit. Iris reticulata photo credit. Chinodoxa photo credit. Grape hyacinth photo credit. Crocus photo credit. Anemone photo credit. Fritillaria photo credit.