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Up From The Minors

They call them minor bulbs, but these early-blooming beauties make a major impact in the garden. Where would spring be without them?

By Beth Botts • March/April 2011

What was the first flower to catch your eye early last spring? Was it a tiny butter-yellow crocus? Or the lemon-bright saucer of winter aconite? Did you spot a green leaf through a dusting of snow and follow it with your eye to the white bell of a snowdrop? Did you pause to enjoy the starry blue of glory-of-the-snow?

Who labeled these “minor bulbs?” Promoters for those show-off tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, obviously. Because there’s nothing minor-league about the charm and cheer that many other bulbs can bring to spring.

Some flower especially early. Some tolerate part shade. Some flower late, when the major show is fading. Their delicate texture contrasts splendidly with the sculptural shapes of tulips.

Native to Central Asia, the Balkans and the dry, cold uplands of the Mediterranean basin, most species are perfectly hardy in Chicago if mulched to protect them from treacherous premature thaws. They will live for years in the right spot and the right soil and may even multiply.

These petite sparklers can be planted right among tulips and daffodils to start the blooming season early. They can be tucked into perennial beds to flower when the other plants are just sprouting. They can be planted to come up through groundcovers, since their foliage, as it fades, is usually unobtrusive.

Their basic requirements are like those for bulbs in general: well-drained soil, so the bulbs don’t sit in the damp and rot over the summer; good balanced nutrition from compost or fertilizer, especially in the weeks after they bloom; sun, with a few exceptions; and a certain tolerance for untidiness.

That’s because the worst thing you can do to bulbs is to tidy up their leaves after they bloom. This is the time when they’re forming the next year’s bulbs and flowers underground, and they need their leaves to collect sunlight to power the process.
So unless you think of your bulbs as annuals, leave the leaves alone until they turn yellow. Plant them among emerging perennials or groundcovers that will cover the yellowing leaves or draw attention from them.

The star of the minor bulbs—the Triple-A major league prospect—is of course the crocus. To most people, that means the smiling large-flowered Crocus vernus and Crocus flavus that bloom in April. Dutch-bred hybrids put on a show in yellow, white, blue, and purple, and the cultivar ‘King of the Striped’ is streaked like a grape candy cane.

But other species of crocus bloom even earlier. Crocus tommasinianus, the snow crocus, has lavender-blue flowers. In the right soil, it will spread happily by seed, and it is less likely to be eaten by squirrels and other wildlife than the large-flowered crocus. Crocus chrysanthus has dainty bouquets of small flowers in butter-yellow, pale blue or white.

Like most minor bulbs, crocus are most effective in multitudes; a single bloom tends to get lost. This is especially true of Crocus chrysanthus, which is most effective in masses near a pathway where its clusters of small blooms can be enjoyed close up.

It’s not a good idea to plant them in mowed lawns, however. The brief bloom time of crocuses may be over by the time the grass gets its first haircut, but they still need those solar collectors in the leaves. Losing half their leaf surface to the lawnmower will starve them.

But don’t you often see glorious sweeps of blue scilla in lawns? Sure, but they tend to be less manicured lawns that don’t get mowed too soon or too low. And you’ll often see the densest blue in the beds around the lawn, or at the base of the surrounding hedge where the lawnmower can’t reach.

Scilla siberica spreads naturally because it is an especially prolific reseeder and tolerates fewer hours of sun than some other bulbs. Though there is a white cultivar, ‘Alba’, and the similar white Scilla tubergeniana, the signature cultivar is Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’ in a joyous royal blue.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding bluebells, which are sometimes called scilla though they are now classified in the genus Hyacinthoides. Mixing everything up even further is the American wildflower called Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica), which also blooms in the spring, but is a perennial, not a bulb.

The signature bluebell of the English spring, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, is a bit tender, so it’s a risk for the wild range of weather possibilities in a Chicago garden. The Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, is a better bet. It bears clusters of small bluebells on a 12- to 15-inch stalk above strappy leaves. As the name suggests, it looks like a casual hyacinth.

Grape hyacinths
Grape hyacinths, on the other hand, have smaller flower spikes that tend to be tidy and tightly packed. They generally range from deep purple to pale blue. The most common species are Muscari botryoides and the rugged Muscari armeniacum, both of which are bright blue but have cultivars in white and other colors. A mass of muscari blooming in mid- to late spring can
be spectacular.

Muscari love sun, and in a good spot they will reseed and spread. But they have a peculiarity that flummoxes some
gardeners: Their grasslike leaves emerge in the fall, which can seem odd and untidy if they come up through a groundcover
bed. It’s best to plant muscari in a mass out of the way or between perennials where the leaves will be unnoticed or will seem like an interesting textural contrast.

If you spot the ice-blue fluffs of Puschkinia scilloides in a garden in April, look closely at the small open bells. You’ll
see a delicate stripe of darker blue down the middle of each petal. There’s one variety, Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica, which skips the stripe and is close to pure white.

Flip the blue-on-white color scheme, and you’re close to Chionodoxa forbesii. Each of its small, pale-blue flowers has a spot of white at the center, so a group of these early spring bloomers seems to sparkle like stars on a clear night. A cultivar, Chionodoxa forbesii ‘Pink Giant,’ loses the sparkle, but makes up for it with larger blooms of pale pink. When it’s happy, glory-of-the-snow reseeds freely.

Among the earliest blooms in spring are snowdrops; they’ve been known to flower in January warm spells, and it’s not uncommon to see the white bells pushing up through leaf mulch in February.

Connoisseurs cherish many subtle variations in the basic snowdrop scheme of a dangling white bell with three large petals and a touch of green. But the most reliable cultivar for Chicago-area gardens is the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. A double-flowered cultivar, ‘Flore Pleno’, is especially durable.

Snowdrops will multiply. They are best planted in beds or at the base of shrubs where the dense clumps of foliage left after the blooms will be out of the way of lawnmowers and perennials.

Winter aconite
One of the first signs of spring isn’t a technically a bulb at all. Eranthis hyemalis, with low lemon-yellow buttercup-like flowers in ruffs of green leaves in February or early March, has underground tubers, not bulbs. If happy, it readily reseeds to form large, cheerful colonies that spread through yards and parkways. It thrives in alkaline soil, so common in the Chicago area, and endures late snows and light frosts.

Checkered fritillary
Some people, when they think of the genus Fritillaria, picture a plant that is far from minor: the grand, Dr. Seuss-ish crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, with 3-foot-tall stems bearing clusters of bright orange or yellow bells with grassy green topknots.

But it has a cousin that is much more subtle. The checkered fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, dangles an elegant bell from an 8- to 10-inch-tall stalk. The bell may be plain white, or it may have a subtle checkerboard pattern in shades of purple and pink, almost like a nodding gingham tulip.

The checkered fritillary prefers a little more shade and more moist soil than many bulbs. But in the right site, it may reseed.
All these bulbs are ready for the majors, and they deserve a spot in the lineup of every garden. So as this spring unfolds,
consider where you might plant some of these little charmers this fall to add to the show next year.