Little Spring Flowering Bulbs

A selected planting of the little spring-blooming bulb flowers can be most rewarding to a winter-weary gardener. Many of these can only be planted during the fall of the year.

In referring to them, the term “bulb” is used whether they have true bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes or similar forms of underground “pantries.” Our thoughts are not likely to dwell on their root structure after they are once planted – we dream rather of the blossoms that will come as surely as the spring. Mild temperatures serve as an alarm clock to these easily awakened babies – some of the most daring frolic with old man winter by opening buds during melting snow weather.

The first to bloom will be the ones in the warmest locations which are usually those that have the comforting warmth of a south foundation at their backs. The rock garden should contain a number of different kinds. Because they are small it is best to plant them in sizable groups for a handsome display. They sparkle in front of low growing evergreens. Plant them along frequently traveled garden paths or where they may be viewed from warm windows on days the weather is too unpleasant for garden rambling and sight-seeing.

yellow flowering Tulipa urumiensis

The little snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are always in a hurry to tell us that spring is coming. The green-spotted, pendant, white blossoms grow on three to four inch stems, sometimes taller. They nod encouragingly to us before the frost is out of the ground. Plant them about three inches deep in rich loam. Their cheerful demeanor brightens a shady path or brings light to shadows at the edges of shrubs. A double form, Galanthus nivalis flore pleno, is available.

The snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, grows taller, 12 to 14 inches high, with blossoms that lift one’s spirits in April or May. Stems of its green-tipped snowy bells cut well. Set the bulbs four to five inches deep in good garden soil, spacing them six to eight inches apart in sun or part shade.

The secret in succeeding with the winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis) may be in getting the tubers back into the soil as soon as possible after digging. The tubers are like small, uneven little pebbles, and deteriorate quickly in storage. Yellow blossoms with frilly ruffs nestle directly on top of the leaves. They take the spotlight early, usually before the crocuses open. They grow only three inches high and may be planted in shade or sun.

Crocuses a “Must”

An early spring garden without crocuses is like a child’s birthday without a festive cake – nothing special – just another day – just another spring. Crocuses are among the most reliable of the small early spring flowering bulbs. Corms are relatively inexpensive, easily obtainable (listed in every fall bulb catalog), with a choice of selections. Cut the flowers in bud before the bees have a chance to pollinate them and they stay fresh for days in a vase. The winter-flowering species crocuses bloom at about the same time as the winter aconite. The blossoms are smaller than those on the Dutch crocus. Not all nurseries list them, but they should be more generally grown. They come in all the crocus colors, but yellow and white predominate.

The young corms grow above the mother corm which spends its strength in a season’s growth of leaves and blossoms. Roots pull the new corms down to their proper soil depth. When seeds form, the seed vessel in its early stages is nowhere to be seen for it is under the soil. A little later it is pushed above ground by a lengthening stalk to ripen in the sun and air. Small clumps soon become colonies – assuring more blossoms for future springs.

The brightest blue in our gardens in early spring is due to the thoughtfulness of an observing nurseryman who brought Scala siberica, the early flowering squill, from cold Siberia more than a 150 years ago. Undaunted by changing weather with raw winds, cold rains or late snows, the winsome blossoms brighten any spot when they are carefully planted. Dozens and dozens of the bulbs should be set in sun or shade. They increase nicely by offsets and set seeds freely. The lazy stems let the pods rest on the ground. When they have ripened they will spill from the pod. It will only be necessary to cover the round shining seeds with a bit of soil, and they’re planted. A white form, S. sibirica alba, more delicate in growth habits, is also available.

Chionodoxa, which in Greek means “glory of the snow,” is similar to the scilla and has been known almost as long. Several of the blue-flowered varieties have snow-white centers. Bulb specialists offer white, rose, and pink varieties also. In their native homes in the mountains of Crete and Asia Minor, the starry blossoms open in profusion amid the melting snow. They are very hardy and increase pleasingly from natural offsets. Seeds will self-sow if permitted to ripen.

Species Tulips

Tulipa dasystemon, known also as T. tarda, is a charming dwarf species resembling a miniature star-shaped water-lily more than a tulip. The flowers have yellow petals which are tipped with white. Hardy and reliable, it is a most delightful sight in April, perfect for sunny rockeries. I made my acquaintance with it by planting a gift packet of seeds. T. clusiana, the graceful “Lady” or “Candlestick Tulip,” has a smaller blossom but grows taller. Slender white blossoms are marked with violet at the base and on the outside with cherry-red. To insure permanence, the bulbs are planted six to nine inches deep.

You have only to plant grape hyacinths (muscari) to assure an ever-ready spring welcoming committee to whoever or whatever requires such a committee. Like the crocuses, almost every fall nursery catalog offers bulbs of several of the most popular varieties. Bulbs planted two to three inches deep are very hardy and come up year after year. They increase rapidly from offsets and from seeds if allowed to mature. The spires of blue or white fairy sceptres make fine companion plants to yellow or white narcissi. The ostrich feather or plume hyacinth, Muscari plumosum, blooms later and grows taller. The feathery plumes, rose-violet-blue in color, are quite different from the grape-hyacinths with their oblong flowerlets, each with a small opening at the tip.

Spectacular Splashes of Color

The gardener intent on spectacular splashes of color often overlooks the exquisite miniature daffodils (narcissi) and misses the magic world of fairies and elfin flowers. These little daffodils are fewer in number of varieties and a source of supply is not as easily located as the larger-flowered ones. But an ardent gardener who realizes their charm will find them.

Scilla campanulata grows taller than S. siberica. It is a stunning addition to a spring garden, blooming with the Darwin tulips. On 12 to 15 inch stems, blue, white, or rose-colored bells peel forth the news that it’s time to enjoy spring flowers, for soon they will be gone. Some have very erect stems, others arch over gracefully. Plant the bulbs four to six inches below the surface of the soil. One runs out of descriptive words to do these beauties justice. To see them is to want them.

The Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum, grows very freely and we spot it in the most unexpected places when it opens its white, starry flowers – the entire bush a mass of blossoms in its prime. I was quite concerned when a neighbor brought me my first plant in full bloom. I feared that she had moved it at the wrong time of the year and that it would surely die. But apparently it can be transplanted whenever the mood strikes for that must have been some 20 years ago, and its progeny still lives on. It thrives in sun or shade, requiring no attention whatever. Each spring the long narrow leaves break through the soil almost unnoticed until the time the flowers appear. Their blooming period is short, but in perfect harmony with the season. The foliage disappears early and one forgets all about it until that spring day when we find Stars of Bethlehem twinkling again.

There are other small bulb flowers that add to a spring garden if planted now – don’t overlook dwarf, early blooming alliums. Trout-lilies (Erythroniums) are novel and interesting at a time when there is little competition from more spectacular flowers.

Trilliums and lilies-of-the-valley are a puzzle to classify because their root structure fits in with neither bulb- nor fibrous-rooted flowers. The short thick root stocks of the trilliums and the slender rhizomatous pips of the lilyof-the-valley are neither bulbs nor tubers but usually classified under “bulb-flowers” and safely planted at this time of year for early spring blooming. The snow trillium, T. nivalis, grows only three to four inches high. A clump of them in full bloom is a sight to see when flowers are rare. Does anyone have to be reminded to plant plenty of lilies-of-the-valley for bouquets, corsages, and garden beauty? The pips are actually bulb-like in their structure because an embryo flower is packed away in each blooming size one. They can be forced into flower almost easier than tulips or narcissi. The fragrant blossoms charm young and old. The plants are very hardy – they thrive in a moist location in the shade.

by O Tiemann

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