Spring is the wonder-making season when good things come in both big and small packages.
Budding trees, hosts of golden daffodils, sweeps of tulips and fragrant hyacinths delight and beguile us as winter recedes. Often overlooked for the garden is an entire category of alluring spring-flowering bulbs. These are the miniature bulbs, officially classed as “minor bulbs” because of their diminutive size.
Many, including snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), snow crocus (Crocus chrysanthuys), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), are precocious bloomers, commonly flowering before the snow has melted. They are the promise of coming floral beauty at a time when a gardener deeply craves color.
you may know fritillaria meleagris by one of its many common names, including checkered lily, guinea-hen flower, snake’s-head lily, leper lily (because its shape resembles the bell once carried by lepers), frog-cup, drooping tulip or chess flower. The botanical name Fritillaria comes from the Latin fritillus meaning dice-box. The species name meleagris means “spotted like a guineafowl.”
The checkerboard pattern on its deep purple, bell-shaped flowers is unusual and eye-catching, sure to charm even the most blasé, although the British Edwardian writer Vita Sackville-West referred to them as, “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.” If that description puts you off, there also is an heirloom white species, F. meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba that dates back to 1575. The ivory-white flowers, which lack the checkerboard pattern, are green-veined.
Native to damp meadows and woodlands in Europe, these hardy bulbs were once abundant in the wild in the UK, particularly in the Thames Valley and parts of Wiltshire. However, during World War II, the ancient fields were plowed for growing food, destroying its natural habitat. Fortunately, there are a few places that escaped the plow where they can still be seen growing in the wild. An April flower pilgrimage worth taking would be to see these distinctive flowers blooming in their natural surroundings. Notable sites where they are still found include the meadows at Magdalen College, Oxford (the meadows are open until dusk; it’s worth waiting until late in the day to visit to see the blossoms light up like jewels in the low spring sun), Iffley Meadows near Donnington Bridge in Oxford and the Oxfordshire village of Ducklington, which holds a “Fritillary Sunday” festival in mid-April.
Fritillaria meleagris is an excellent choice for naturalizing in a moist, partially shaded area of the garden. They look great combined with marsh marigolds. If your soil is not ideal, enhance the conditions by adding black peat moss, which will improve the soil structure and increase water retention. Plant nine bulbs per square foot, ideally in drifts with other spring bulbs to create a flower meadow effect.
The bulbs have a faint skunky odor, which has the salutary effect of repelling pests, including voles, squirrels and deer.
blooming even earlier than snowdrops, each winter aconite flower is like a cup of sunshine in the late-winter garden. Adding to their merits, they are so animal-proof the Elizabethans called them “Little Yellow Woolfes-bain.” Not only are they a bane to wolves (should any be around), deer, squirrels, voles and other garden pests eschew them.
If in the past you’ve tried unsuccessfully to establish a colony of winter aconites, you are not alone. In her popular blog, “A Way to Garden,” Margaret Roach wrote about the problem in March 2016. “You can count on Eranthis hyemalis, or winter aconite, for a couple of things: to be a pioneer each spring, blooming extra-early even among the early bulbs, and to provoke consternation and also conversation among gardeners who planted them but got nothing in return. In late winter or early spring phrases like ‘slow to establish’ are heard from frustrated gardeners seeing maybe 2 of the 200 they planted last fall actually doing anything.”
Part of the problem is the bulbs dry out easily, making them less viable. The tubers should be planted in early fall when they are fresh. Soak them in water for several hours beforehand, then bury them an inch deep. Like many of these small bulbs, they look best if you plant nine bulbs per every square foot. And Roach shares good news: “Buying waxed tubers from a vendor like Old House Gardens also helps. I had virtually 100 percent success with their waxed tubers — a dramatic difference from any other time I’d tried to establish a new colony.”
The other secret is not to disturb the plants. Roach writes, “The best colonies of winter aconite I’ve ever seen were ones where the plants had sown themselves around over time. As is likewise the case with many other self-sowns, my best success with Eranthis has come under deciduous trees and shrubs where you aren’t in there rooting around a lot and disturbing them; where they have a place to themselves to arise, bloom, fade gradually until they’re good and done, and set seed at their own pace.”
They thrive in that magical combination of rich, moist, well-drained soil, and don’t like to completely dry out even in summer dormancy. Too much mulch also will inhibit seed germination, thus reducing your chances of growing a spreading colony of these golden cupped early spring flowers.
To see knock-your-socks-off displays of winter aconites in flower, visit Ithan Valley Park in Radford, Pennsylvania and the Wild Garden at Wave Hill in the Bronx in New York City. In February and March you’ll see wide swaths of them in bloom under the trees.
snowdrops, like most of the minor bulbs, are underused in Virginia gardens. Put one or two in the garden, and few will notice, but mass-plant them in the woods, and you’ll have a wondrous display of white flowers worthy of a pilgrimage to see. Do bear in mind that newly planted snowdrops will take a year to get established. In their second year, they will produce more flowers and begin to multiply and spread.
Once they are established, you can divide tight clumps by digging them up after the foliage has died back in mid to late spring. They will dry out if left out of the ground, so re-plant immediately.
The genus name Galanthus is Greek. Gala means milk and anthos is flower. These milky white flowers, which are enlivened with a green blaze on the petals, look best grown in sweeping drifts in the woods, planted among the roots of a large deciduous tree or edging lawns. They mix well with winter aconite, which flowers at the same time.
plant chionodoxa now, and enjoy a river of blue flowers in early spring. They will quickly naturalize, reproducing and expanding its spread with every passing year. Growing them is as simple as planting the little bulbs in fall, dusting off your hands and walking away. They’ll spread on their own.
The small, six-petal flowers bloom in small clusters. In addition to the common variety with its rich blue flowers that look all the more vivid due to the striking white centers, they also are available in white and pink. No matter what color you grow, all glory-of-the-snow make great cut flowers and are the perfect size for a bud vase.
The botanical name is a portmanteau word derived from from the Greek word chion, which means snow and doxa, glory. As the name suggests, in many regions the plant blooms early enough that the flowers sometimes poke through the snow. Around here the flowers peak in March and April.
Native to rocky mountainsides of western Turkey, these bulbs aren’t too picky about where they’re planted as long as there is good drainage. Bulbs in general are at a higher risk of rotting if grown in overly moist soil. It can tolerate drought, which makes them ideal in deciduous forests where they get the sun they need before the trees leaf, and then remain dry when they’re dormant. Set the bulb about two to three times as deep as it is wide; a 1-inch-wide bulb should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep.
another easy-to-grow minor bulb that has a great visual impact when planted en masse is Scilla siberica, commonly called Siberian squill. The tiny plants are insignificant on their own, but plant a sparse drift in an area where they can spread, and before you know it you’ll have a carpet of the intensely blue flowers to gladden your early spring days. They reproduce both by bulb offshoots and self-seeding, making the multiplication process exponential.
The clusters of flowers stand out among the sword-like leaves, which grow from the base of the plant and arch outward, making the flowers more visible. Each plant produces three to five flowering stems that are graced with a cluster of bell-shaped flowers. There also is a hybrid version available called ‘Spring Beauty’. It is similar to the species, except perhaps slightly larger, longer blooming and deeper blue in color.
Siberian squill flowers shortly after snowdrops, so together you’ll get a long season of interest.
Another worthy member of the squill family is Scilla mischtschenkoana or wood squill. Like Scilla siberica, it blossoms abundantly, reaching its peak in March. The flowers are pale blue to white with blue mid veins. Like their other scilla cousins, they reappear each spring from their dormancy with greater vigor and an increased number of blooms year after year. Begin by planting nine bulbs per square foot, but within a few years, plan to dig up dense clumps of them to divide and replant — or share with friends.
many a gardener’s heart has been broken when a naturalizing patch of crocus that is putting on a better display every year, is destroyed by a marauding band of
squirrels. The most common crocuses, hybrids of Crocus vernus, are especially toothsome to these pesky rodents. Fortunately, there is a crocus the squirrels don’t like: Crocus tommasinianus.
Native to the hillsides and woodland areas from southern Hungary into northern Balkans, it is well adapted to Virginia. Here the undisturbed bulbs will multiply with enthusiasm and vigor. Named in honor of the 19th century botanist Muzio Giuseppe Spirito de Tommasini, it is commonly called the snow crocus because it flowers so early in the season beginning in February and continuing into March.
In February, slim, egg-shaped, satiny buds appear, colored white, pale lilac, silvery purple or reddish purple. The buds open to a pale lavender to reddish-purple, long-tubed, goblet-shaped flowers with white throats and saffron colored pistil and anthers. Topping out at 4 to 6 inches tall, these crocuses are ideal for naturalizing in your lawn. By the time you need to mow, the plants will have receded underground to rest until next year’s early spring performance.
Designing with Minor Bulbs
when it comes to these tiny gems, strength comes in numbers. To get the most impact for your spring floral display, group minor bulbs in clusters, with at least 25 plants. Play them off other features in your garden, such as a specimen rock or scattered around the foot of a tree. They also are charming at the front of a flower or shrub border, along walkways and naturalized along the margins of the woods. Plant them where they will be undisturbed so they can multiply and spread.
Add major wonder to your early spring garden with minor bulbs. Their beauty enchants while their delicacy belies the fact that they are durable and hardy, many pushing through snow as the harbingers of spring.