Weird & Wonderful Spring Bulbs

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By Beth Botts

It’s like the emperor with no clothes. The crown imperial stands 3 to 4 feet tall, its Sun King-bright flowers lording it over the spring garden with the hauteur of Louis XIV, utterly unaware that its dignity is fatally undercut by the absurdity of its green bad-hair-day topknot.
Not every spring bulb has the classic sculptured grace of a lily-flowered tulip. Yet many bulbs beyond the ordinary have charms that can grow on a gardener, adding variety and interest where tulips, daffodils and crocuses may seem old hat.

Some of the most spectacular and intriguing of the less common spring bulbs are members of the genus Fritillaria. “What I love about them is that they’re all so different,” says Jill Selinger, a former bulb company executive who teaches about hardy bulbs at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Yes, there’s the goofy crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), which looks like something Groucho Marx did to Margaret Dumont. But there’s also its cousin, Fritillaria persica, with tall spires of dusky-purple blooms that have a brooding Heathcliffian handsomeness.

The crown imperial comes in a yellow variety (‘Lutea Maxima’) and a vivid orange one (‘Rubra Maxima’), says Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of John Scheepers Flower Bulb Co. in Bantam, Conn. And Fritillaria persica has a less daunting cultivar, ‘Ivory Bells’, that is “ivory-green-chartreusey,” she says, lovely in an all-green garden. Both Fritillaria imperialis and Fritillaria persica need full sun and “impeccable drainage” if they are to rebloom, Selinger says. Native to dry, gravelly soils in the eastern Mediterranean, they are highly prone to rot and are poor companions for perennials that will be watered all summer. If you want them to survive and rebloom, Selinger suggests planting them in a hot, dry place you plan to neglect in summer, a place where Russian sage or grasses would thrive. That also will distance you from the crown imperial’s “slightly skunky” aroma that deters deer and rabbits, according to van den Berg-Ohms.

Plant the strange, spongy bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis at an angle, Selinger suggests, so that water cannot collect in the divot that is left from last year’s stem. Despite all your caution, there’s a risk that these plants will produce only foliage and not flowers the second year. But they may be worth it just for one year’s comedy and drama.

It’s hard to believe such towering personalities are related to the shy and winsome checkered fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), which dangles maroon-and-white bells like upturned gingham tulips just above the ground. It does well in moist, sunny spots such as at the edge of Selinger’s rain garden, where it actually is spreading a little bit. “It’s not gangbusters — it’s not like scilla — but it’s forming a nice little colony,” she says.

For special effects, you also can count on the alliums, late bloomers with globes and ovals in sizes from ping-pong ball to basketball. Van den Berg-Ohms says her garden full of alliums always makes a stir in her neighborhood (also in USDA Zone 5). “They’re so much fun and they also provide amazing garden architecture,” she says. She’s especially proud of combining the large purple ‘Globemaster’ with a classic peony, ‘Festiva Maxima’, which has fluffy white blooms with flecks of red in the center. “It was fabulous,” she says.

A more sensational ornamental onion is Allium schubertii. It has explosions of bloom 12 to 18 inches in diameter, like burgundy fireworks, held on short stalks above thick, sculptural leaves. Although most alliums, blooming in late spring or early summer, are hardy, critter-resistant and tough as nails, Selinger finds that Allium schubertii does not come back as reliably as most. “But it’s so worth it, because that flower is so spectacular and they make such a cool dried flower head,” she says.

The drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) has burgundy-purple bloom clusters the size and shape of small eggs in early summer on 2- to 3-foot stalks. They are fun nodding among ornamental grasses and prairie perennials but need to be planted in substantial numbers to have much effect.

Golden garlic (Allium moly) abandons the round-and-oval theme for loose clusters of vivid yellow flowers in summer on stems less than a foot tall. But they spread, says Selinger, so “put them in an area where you don’t mind them proliferating.”

There’s even a native allium, nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), which has dangling purple-pink flowers on foot-tall plants and is better behaved than golden garlic.
Or turn to an underused but rewarding native of the western U.S., Camassia leichtlinii, which could be mistaken for an oversized hyacinth that decided to kick back. Unlike most hardy spring bulbs, camassia tolerates moist soil — even a certain degree of clay — and part shade. The starry white, blue or purple flowers grow on tall stalks and open from the bottom over a long period, so “the flowers seem to last forever,” Selinger says.

Then there are riskier pursuits. Foxtail lilies (Eremerus) are delectably odd: “They look like corn dogs,” says van den Berg-Ohms of the long, waving panicles that fill up with yellow or orange blooms like a rubber ear of corn. They are theoretically hardy in Zone 5, but it’s very tricky to get them to come back. “When they’re happy they’re fabulous,” she says. “But whenever anyone in Zone 5 wants one, I encourage them to do a trial planting. A particularly brutal winter freeze can wipe them out.”

Selinger flatly discourages planting most species of star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum), despite their starry white flowers. “It’s very pretty, but it is incredibly aggressive if you let it go to seed just a little bit,” she says. The only cultivar she might risk is Ornithogalum nutans ‘Silver Bells’, which is somewhat less prolific and tolerates part shade.

Of course, a wide range of unusual effects is available to those who have indoor space under lights to grow tender bulbs. It’s not all cannas and calla lilies: There are echiums like giant pink caterpillars, pineapple lilies (Eucomis) like dusters with green dreadlocks and spiderlike Hymenocallis, among many others. Forced into bloom in pots, they can make arresting cameo appearances outdoors and be hustled back inside if cold threatens.

But with so many options to be explored among the hardy bulbs, why bother? Spend this spring considering where you could stir up the landscape. Then order some crown imperials or drumstick alliums, plant them this fall, and next year you’ll give the daffodils something to talk about.


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