|(Header photo courtesy Maarten van den Heuvel)
Planting bulbs seems to be something that always gets away from me. Buying bulbs is never a problem. “Oh, these are so pretty,” or “Oooh, these are on sale,” and into the cart they go. Somewhere around March, though, I find that bag of dried up husks in the cabinet I never use where I “temporarily” stored them to keep them safe from the elements and the cat who destroys everything. Best laid plans and all that—although in my case it should be best laid “plants.”
But this year’s going to be different, says I! Since I’ve been finally getting my little bird garden planted with viburnums, blueberries, and holly along with some native perennials, I thought I could add some bulbs for spring color. 2020 being what it is, I turned to the internet to peruse the bulb selections.
I ended up going with Bluestone Perennials, as they also had a plant I had been looking for, ‘Thai Jade’ Phlox, a very fragrant garden phlox that was discovered years ago in the garden of a friend of mine. She moved several years ago, and sadly many of her plants had to be left behind. So now that I had my precious sentimental plant, I turned to the bulbs.
Daffodils are a cheerful option, but to be honest their ubiquity bores me. Tulips are lovely, but the ones I like best such as parrot and peony-flowering types don’t return, and that was a prerequisite. I have a lot of squirrels, so that had to be considered as well.
Since I still don’t trust myself not to doom them to that cabinet, I kept it simple and ended up with 4 selections from Bluestone, well-packed and received in excellent condition: Allium shubertii (VanBloem Gardens brand), Fritillaria aureomarginata (VanBloem Gardens brand), Muscari paradoxum (Simple Pleasures brand), and Narcissus Peach Cobbler (VanBloem Gardens brand). Yes, I know I said daffodils bore me, but these are a more interesting variety.
I’ll tell you about these and come spring I’ll give you an update on what they really look like and how well they do. While I’m here, I’ll also suggest some lesser-known bulbs that are really fabulous and deserve your consideration.
Alliums are essentially flowering onions. Chives and garlic chives are two alliums with which you’re likely familiar. Most gardeners have also seen the ads for ‘Globemaster’ or similar varieties—enormous blue orbs floating atop tall green stems, invariably next to a child’s head for size comparison.
Alliums tend to bloom later than most spring bulbs—late spring to early summer and are very attractive to pollinators. Blooms consist of multiple small flowers arranged in either very tight or spidery clusters, in perfectly round, oval or flattened rounded shapes. Height varies from 8 to up to 72 inches, and colors include blue, purple, pink, white, and some very interesting maroon shades they try to call red. Although that sounds like a lot of variation, it’s still rather easy to tell it’s an allium. The exceptions would be those with larger individual flowers, like Mediterranean bells (A. nectaroscodum siculum)—that one might fool you with its drooping clusters of deep pink and cream blossoms. Well, it's technically not an allium, but most bulb companies call it one. Some of the other interesting choices include:
All alliums are deer, rabbit and rodent resistant. Note that all onions, which include alliums, are poisonous to pets.
- Drumstick Allium: Egg-shaped blooms that turn from green to burgundy as they mature, usually with a top to bottom two-toned look. 24-36 inches tall, they bloom late.
- A. vineale 'Hair': Fragrant, 24" tall, and just plain weird. Purple centers surrounded by longer wiry-looking greenish-yellow "hairs". Love it or hate it, but it's unique.
- Allium 'Forelock'; These inch round burgundy flowers have "hair," too, but it' s white-tipped and sticks straight up out of the top. 24 to 28 inches tall.
- A. schubertii, my choice, was recommended to me by the aforementioned friend as her favorite and the best allium. One of the “spidery” types, 12” wide purple flower heads resemble exploding fireworks on 16” stems.
Even a lot of gardeners don’t seem to know Fritillaria, which is a shame as they are uniquely attractive plants.
Probably the biggest reason why these are not often seen or planted is that the bulbs begin to suffer the minute they leave the ground. They don’t have an outside covering like daffs and tulips that keeps them from drying out. Anyone buying one from a bulb rack in a typical store where they sit in less than optimal conditions for weeks to months on end is bound to be disappointed. Best is to purchase online and plant the moment they are received—which I really wish I had done. It would have been nice if the instructions from Bluestone had mentioned this very pertinent fact, or the packaging from VanBloem had done so, but other than the general plant them as soon as you can instruction which was for ALL bulbs, there was no warning. I will say that even several weeks later when I planted the bulb, it looked good--firm, with a few juicy white roots, and no signs of drying out at all. So, I am hopeful.
- Fritillaria meleagris, or Guinea-hen flower, is an 8 to 10 inch tall variety with solid white or deep maroon-purple and white checkered pendant flowers. Not as noticeable as your bright daffodils and showy tulips, however they are perfectly charming where they can be admired up close. They can tolerate partial shade, so are nice for the woodland garden. Some suppliers sell a mix of the 2 colors, which has more impact. These may naturalize after a time.
- Crown Imperial is a stately fritillaria, with the flowers arranged in a drooping cluster on a very tall stem, topped with a pointy cap of green foliage. They smell like skunk or fox, which is one reason they’re so critter resistant, so don’t complain! That’s what I’ll be telling myself if they bloom in my small yard where I cannot hope to escape the fragrance. My choice was ‘aureomarginata,’ 3 to 4 feet tall with orange-red flowers, but with yellow and green variegated foliage, for which I am a total sucker. Most Crown Imperial have solid green leaves and either red, orange, or yellow blooms.
- F. persica is another tall variety, with deep purple, almost black downward facing bells arranged on the stem, reminiscent of a foxglove.
Yes, I know, they’re only grape hyacinths, but they’re just so darn cute! And the squirrels, deer, etc. generally don’t bother them, they can take partial shade, and they naturalize well. There are some fun varieties you may not see as often:
The rest have the same form as the usual grape hyacinths, but bloom in shades other than the usual blue or white:
- M. plumosum bears fluffy flower spikes in a purplish-pink shade—kind of like a mini liatris
- ‘Fantasy Creation’ is an interesting larger, double flowered form that puts one in mind of a bunch of blue broccoli. It changes color through the season, from blue to purple to green to yellow
My choice was M. paradoxum, for its tight conical shape and very deep blue color, with supposed turquoise highlights—we’ll see about that.
- ‘Valerie Finnis’ in a pale China Blue
- M. latifolium with two-tone spikes of deep purple and bright blue
- Golden Fragrance’ in golden yellow with plum tips
- ‘Ocean Magic’with medium blue spikes tipped with white
One advantage to this variety is that unlike most other muscaris it does not send up new leaves in the fall. Depending on the weather, the foliage might be cold-damaged and look messy over winter. Some gardeners have found that deer are particularly attracted to the fall muscari foliage, and their browsing ultimately weakens the bulbs.
I wonder if the fact that paradoxum does not produce this foliage explains its name—originally the meaning of paradoxum was “to act as otherwise expected.”
Ok, ok, I know I said they’re boring. But there are some unusual varieties that are not often seen. Of course, it’s very possible that they’re not often seen because in your garden they look less like the photos and more like your average daffodil.
My first time many years ago planting “pink” daffodils was less than satisfying. ‘Salome,’ I believe it was, with white petals and a bright apricot-pink trumpet—still currently advertised as such. Well, maybe apricot-pink is a fancy way of saying “cream” or “very, very, ever so slightly barely yellow-orange, with an extremely pale, almost negligible hint of pink.” Yeah, that’s it! I do credit Brent and Becky's Bulbs (from whom I did not purchase them) for having in their current listing for Salome, "color is variable depending on the weather." I figured that was the case, but I appreciate a warning before I purchase--kudos to them for not shying away from providing one.
This time I am prepared, and if the color of my ‘Peach Cobbler’ is a little drab, hopefully the double form will be pronounced and showy. A bonus is that double daffodilstend to have a sweet fragrance.
- 'Obdam': double white
- 'Flower Surprise', 'Replete': double white and pink
- 'Golden Ducat': double yellow
- 'Tahiti': double yellow and orange
Split corona daffodils exhibit the most unusual form. The blooms are large and up-facing. The corona, or trumpet, is split into several lobes that tend to be frilly but flattened out against the petals, resulting in a “flower within a flower” look. Split coronas and doubles, especially the newer varieties, can be somewhat more expensive than your average daffodil bulb.
Don't be left out when everyone's bulbs start blooming this spring--most of you still have time to get some in the ground. It doesn't have to be a big project. Find something you love and pop a few by the mailbox, in between your pansies, or near your withering hostas. Start small--you can always add more next year. For tips on planting spring-blooming bulbs, click below:
- 'Orangery’ is an old favorite, with white petals and an orange corona.
- 'Mondragon'; bright yellow with orange corona
- 'Tricollet': white with 3-petalled cup giving it a pinwheel effect
- 'Sunny Side Up': greenish-white with very frilly pale yellow-green cup
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