Unusual Bulbs

by Jan Cashman

Fall is the time to plant hardy bulbs for beautiful blooms in your garden next spring. Most bulbs are perennial; they need to be planted only once and will come up and bloom year after year. Not all of what we call bulbs are true bulbs. Some are corms, tuberous roots, or rhizomes, but they all store the plant’s food and contain buds that grow into the new plant. During the growing season these bulbous plants replenish their food supply inside the bulb for the coming year. Then the bulbs can be dug and replanted.

When we think of bulbs, tulips and daffodils come to mind. But there are other lovely, exotic bulbs with hard-to-pronounce names that will give your yard a show of color. Planting these uncommon bulbs with their unfamiliar names can give you a long range of blooms, from early spring through the summer; some even bloom in the fall. These minor bulbs’ heights range from tiny 3″ Eranthus to 5’tall foxtail lilies. Many are fragrant.

Most of the unusual bulbs are short and look best planted in masses. Mix these early-blooming bulbs for a spring show in your garden. Hardy, easy-care Chionodoxas often bloom before the snow melts. The flowers are white or shades of blue, lavender, or pink. Eranthus or Winter Aconite is another of the earliest-blooming spring-flowering bulbs. Its yellow flowers, that look like buttercups, grow from pea-sized bulbs. Plant them close together in the front of your flower bed.

Short, white Galanthus or snowdrops are another early bulb. Snowdrops do best in dappled shade. Squill or Scilla is an exceptional small bulb that is hardy in all zones and unfazed by frost. It grows in almost any soil type. The pretty flower of Squill is one of the few true blue flowers; most ‘blue’ flowers contain some purple.

When most people think of iris, they envision the tall German bearded iris that bloom in late May and early June here. But, dwarf (4″) Iris reticulata blooms early in the spring and has deep purple flowers with a yellow blotch on each petal. Its intense color is a real show-stopper when the rest of the garden is still brown.

Puschkinia is a favorite of gardeners who want an unusual flower. This small, hardy, trouble-free bulb blooms a little later (mid-spring) and is a little taller (6″) than some of the bulbs just mentioned. Its striped, light blue flowers are appealing and the deer stay away from them. Puschkinia prefers some shade.

Snowflake is a bulb whose flowers resemble lily-of-the-valley, about one foot tall. The species of snowflake that we sell blooms in mid-spring but a rarer species called “Autumn snowflake” blooms in late summer. Camassia quamash, also called Indian quamash, is a wildflower Native Americans used to cook and eat, although the bulbs are poisonous when eaten raw. This bulb blooms later in the spring with deep blue, star-shaped flower spikes 18″ tall.

Alliums or ornamental onions, are interesting and deer resistant bulbs for this area. Their big, spherical flowers, usually purple, will stand up above other flowers in your beds. Giant allium can be 4 feet tall or more. Bloom times of alliums vary with the species from mid-spring through mid-summer. Their unusual shapes and textures, some have huge flowers bigger than a foot in diameter that look like fireworks exploding, make them a must to add to your perennial garden.

It is always a pleasant surprise in September to come across the lavender blossoms of Colchicums. This unusual bulb, sometimes called autumn crocus though not a real crocus, produces glossy leaves in the spring which turn yellow and die. In September, the flowers, that look a bit like water lilies, emerge without the leaves. Plant Colchicum in the fall, even though they might be blooming when you purchase them.

There are some unusual species of common bulbs. Tarda, a species, or wild, tulip, is easy-to-grow. Its yellow flowers in May become attractive seed pods. Crocus sieberi is a showy, early spring-blooming crocus only 3″ tall with deep lilac flowers that have white centers and yellow stamens.

Instead of the common grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum), try a different species. All Muscari are deer proof and reliable. Daffodils are also deer resistant, but for a change from all the yellow daffodils, try white or peach or orange.

Plant your bulbs in September or October to give the roots time to grow and store energy for next spring’s flowers. Plant them deep in our climate, at least 3 times the height of the bulb and incorporate a high phosphorous fertilizer into your planting hole. Whether you plant masses of tiny early-blooming squill, snowdrops, and chionodoxa, tall allium for summer texture in your garden, or fall-blooming crocus, now is the time to do it, before the snow flies.