While we’re on the subject of bulbs - be sure and read last week’s article on alliums, - I thought that it might be fun to showcase some of the less well-known specialty bulbs. I discovered them a few years ago while pouring over a catalog from one of Embassy’s garden products suppliers, ordered a few varieties and have been hooked on them ever since. From the ones that peek out while the snow is still falling to those that herald the beginning of a long, lazy summer, they are all worth a prime spot in the landscape.
Just when you think that winter will never end, the bright yellow blossoms of the Winter aconite appear! A member of the buttercup family, Eranthis hyemalis typically shows off its tiny yellow blooms in late February and early March (mine have even bloomed in January), even before the first snowdrops bloom. Rising on 4 inch stems, the six petalled blooms open on sunny days and hide their faces on cloudy days. Dark green leaves emerge once the flowers completely fade. They love a moist, nutritious soil and will sprout better if soaked before planting. Winter aconites do especially well under deciduous trees; they love being in the full sun before the trees leaf out but need the shade before they go completely dormant and disappear. One word of warning: all parts of Eranthis hyemalis are toxic. The tuber is especially poisonous and can cause severe reactions if consumed.
Native to Siberia, even the coldest winters won’t deter this gem from showing off its gorgeous blue blooms in March and early April. Planted in masses of 15 to 25 bulbs, the diminutive flowers, reaching only about 4 inches in height, form a carpet of early spring color that instantly wipes away the winter blues. Scilla siberica thrives in a full sun, well -drained location, but also tolerates a lightly shaded spot. Since the foliage fades quickly once the blooms are done, these bulbs are perfect to naturalize in the lawn. Both bulbs and blooms are deer and rabbit resistant.
Often called “Summer Snowflake”, leucojum actually blooms in mid to late spring, often coming to its peak just as the early daffodils are ending theirs. Four to eight pristine white, bell-shaped flowers, each on an 18 inch stem, rise from glossy green clumps of leaves in April and May. Found in nature at the edge of woodlands, Summer Snowflakes grow well in partial shade or full sun, but require consistent moisture during their growing season. Beautiful in drifts of 15 or 20 bulbs, leucojum will easily multiply if planted in organically rich, slightly moist soils. Their blooms are fragrant, so make sure that you plant them where you can enjoy their chocolate scent.
An exotic presence in the garden, these mid to late spring bloomers are definitely show-stoppers! Bell-shaped, pendant blooms in colors ranging from deep purple to bright red appear atop of 36 inch upright stems in late May and June. Blooms typically last three to four weeks. Like most bulbs, well-drained soil in the full sun is best, but some varieties of fritillaria appreciate a mottled shade and a bit more moisture during the growing season. Mulch well after fall planting. If their foliage is allowed to die back and they are left in place, fritillaria will naturalize. Plant alongside grape hyacinths and daffodils like Mount Hood or King Alfred for a striking spring display. Both bulbs and blooms are deer resistant. (Please note that these bulbs do not hold well, so please plant them immediately after purchase.)
For those looking for a bridge between spring and summer bloomers, the North American native Camassia quamash could be the answer. Flowering in late May and June, Camassia are vital food sources for early pollinators like bumble bees, mason bees and a range of beetles. Growing up to 2 feet, single stems feature star-shaped blue blooms that open sequentially from the bottom up. They make excellent cut flowers, and unlike some bulbs, cutting the blooms does not hinder the bulb’s health. Plant Camassia in rich, organic soil that is well-drained, but make sure that they have consistent moisture during the growing season. Consider placing them in beds where their fading foliage can be hidden by summer bloomers.