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Unusual Bulbs
by Brian Minter
by Brian Minter


Brian is President of Minter Country Garden, an innovative destination garden center and greenhouse growing operation. He is a gardening columnist, radio host, international speaker and author.

His website is located at

September 16, 2007

How about adding a whole new dimension to your spring garden by planting some of the more unusual bulbs in unique locations? These bulbs need to be mass planted to create the same dramatic impact as the showier tulips and narcissus, but they add an element of charm to a garden that is hard to beat.

One of the brightest and earliest blooming corms is the little yellow buttercup-like winter aconite. More correctly called Eran­this hyemalis, these low (almost ground-cover height) plants do best in fairly moist situations where they can spread freely and multip­ly over the years. Just imagine how a carpet of yellow would look in early February, massed under deciduous flowering shrubs like forsythia, flowering quince or even fragrant February daphne.

The sweetest of all the tiny bulbs has to be the miniature bulbous iris, particularly Iris reticulata. Yellow Iris dan­fordiaes are very attractive, but the blue and mauve miniature I. reticulatas, growing only three to four inches high, are more reliable as repeat bloomers. They flower very early and make a delightful display in a rockery, or better yet, underplanted around ‘Buttercup’ winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora), which blooms with soft yellow flowers at the same time as the reticulatas.

Some of the most overlooked bulbs in this country are the scil­las. They are a rather large family, including everything from old fashioned English bluebells (Endymion non-scriptus) to the multi-coloured bifolias from the mountainous regions of southern Europe. Most scillas are referr­ed to as wood hyacinths because their long six to eight inch stalks are dotted with lots of bell-like blossoms, giving them the appearance of a single or slender hyacinth. Squills or S. siberica are among the most valuable members of this genus because of their brilliant gentian blue early spring blossoms. 'Spring Beauty' (with larger flowers and more vigorous growth) is perhaps the best known siberica. Scillas like well drained soil in a sunny location, but will also flourish in semi-shade.

Fritillarias are also a large and diverse family. Perhaps one of the most beautiful small varieties is a native of the damp meadows of Britain, called F. meleagris, or better known as Snakeshead or Checkered Lily. Their showy flowers, checkered and veined with reddish-brown and purple, bloom in late spring, and their two inch bell-like flowers grow on 12 to 18 inch stems. They are delightful­ly unique. They need well drained soil and a sunny location to do their best, but are also quite at home in damp woodsy areas.

Another of the very best spring bulbs are the chionodoxas, or Glory-of-the-Snow. They are so named because, like snowd­ro­ps, they are among the first bulbs to bloom when the snow disap­pears. These charming little bulbous plants grow only 4 to 6 inches high with blue or white tubular star-like flowers. They do well in sun but prefer a partially shady area with some moisture. They multiply readily and would be a real treat to find tucked in among yellow pansies or primulas.

One of the little bulbs that impressed me at the Keuken­off Gardens in Holland was Anemone blanda. They were used by the hundreds of thousands to border beds of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. The striking contrast of the pure white variety with the other bright coloured flowers was truly stunning. Thousands had also been planted in drifts going off into wooded areas. The blandas bloom for a long time, and their foliage even looks attractive when the flowers are finished. They multiply easily and spread into a carpet of colour in no time at all. I think they are really something special.

I wish there was more space to write about the dozens and dozens of other small perennial-like bulbs that are available for planting at this time of year. Do try some of them in and around other early flowering spring shrubs and perenn­ials to add a whole new feel to your spring garden.

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