While daffodils may dazzle, tulips tantalize and hyacinths haunt us with their heavenly perfume, these are but a small sampling of what the wonderful world of bulbs has to offer. These large, flowering beauties certainly can capture the imagination but do not overlook the potential of lesser known bulb species commonly but inappropriately referred to as minor bulbs.

Two especially attractive features of these bulbs are their relatively inexpensive price (so buy in large quantities) and their tendency to naturalize so they are not in need of constant replacement.

One early bloomer I am quite fond of is the snow crocus, sometimes called the bunch crocus. Flowers may be smaller than the later blooming giant crocus but there are many more of them. In a sunny, southern exposure, they will bloom in early March after a snowless winter.

                         C. vernus & C. chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’.

Snow crocus species include Crocus chrysanthus, C. sieberi and C. tommasinianus. There are a number of named varieties and these are well suited to planting in lawns as the foliage will ripen before your lawn needs cutting.

                                             Crocuses naturalizing in lawn.

I love irises and am especially smitten by the netted iris. These miniatures, including the purple I. reticulata and the sweet-scented, bright yellow I. danfordiae, reaching only 4 inches tall in bloom and often peaking through the snow. They naturalize slowly but surely, and after flowering, long narrow foliage appears and dies discretely away.

                                            Beautiful blue Iris reticulata

Personally, I would advise against planting Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum. Despite its rather innocent name and pleasant description, “pure white, star-shaped flowers”, its been called an “impressive naturalizer” and I can attest to that. Its flowers are lovely, but they only open on sunny days and the copious foliage smothers anything growing nearby, turns an ugly shade of yellow and lasts for months unless you remove it. Anyone desiring these bulbs should contact me as I weed them out by the bushel every year only to be rewarded by their return each spring.

                     Star of Bethlehem from http://www.courses.missouristate.edu

At the other extreme, I cannot get enough of Erythronium a.k.a. dog’s tooth violet or trout lily. These exquisite creatures are rather costly, but their beautiful, mottled foliage and delicate, lily-shaped blossoms are well worth the price. You will find yellow ones blooming in woodlands in spring, but the pinks and whites are found in bulb catalogs.

                                 White trout lily in a woodland garden.

Another top performer is Camassia, also called quamash or wild hyacinth. The bulbs are rather foul-smelling but have never been bothered by any wildlife or insect in my garden. Beautiful, bluish, star-shaped flowers adorn 18-inch stalks in late May. A white cultivar is also available. Camassias are great for cutting, prefer a moist soil, and clumps increase in size each year.

Snowdrops, Galanthus sp., are familiar to almost every gardener but for a little more pizazz, try the double variety, ‘Flore Pleno’. These grow to only five inches high with full, ruffled flowers and are quite a delight in early spring.

                  Snowdrops can handle winter weather as their name implies

A late bloomer is the summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum. Slow to naturalize, it will form good-sized clumps eventually. The white, delicate, bell-shaped flowers are perched on 15-inch stems and tipped with green. Summer snowflake does well in lightly shaded, moist spots.

                 Summer snowflake – I’ll have to take a better picture next year!

Try some of the minor bulbs if you haven’t given them thought before. Plant in groups of a dozen or more for greater impact. Their beauty and resilience will surely please.

Dawn P.

Mention the word, bulbs, and most associate it with spring and summer blooming affairs. Lesser known, but nonetheless delightful, are the fall flowering colchicums and autumn crocuses. Blooming in shades of pinks and purples, these bulbs, corms actually, combine well with pastel mums and asters as well as many late blooming, cold tolerant annuals. One of my favorite combinations is the double flowering, mauve-colored ‘Waterlily’ colchicum surrounded by white sweet alyssum. Stemless flowers arise seemingly from nowhere adding an element of surprise to the fall garden.

 Colchicums, sometimes referred to as meadow saffron or autumn crocuses, which they do resemble, are not related to true crocuses and are members of the Colchicaceae family. The large corms are poisonous and as such won’t be bothered by pesky rodents. A poisonous compound, colchicine, is derived from the plant and used on tissue cultures in plant breeding laboratories to produce new plant varieties by genetically altering the chromosomes. According to Dr. Mark Brand, University of Connecticut Plant Science Professor, “it is still used regularly in plant breeding to double chromosomes and make tetraploids.”


Colchicum autumnale By Chromolithograph by Portail after Auguste Faguet – Dictionnaire de botanique by Henri Ernest Baillon and others, volume 3. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3493546

Only a few of the 45 species of colchicum plus some hybrids are hardy here. Common autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) is most often found in garden centers and catalogs. It sports rosy-pink flowers up to 4 inches across usually in early October. There is also a single white flowering form, a double pink and a double white. Two inch wide leaves arise in the spring and die down by midsummer.

colchicum in bud 1

Colchicum buds. Photo by dmp.

The showy autumn crocus (Colchicum speciosum) produces larger and showier flowers in the fall but also larger, coarser leaves in spring. Crimson purple, cup-shaped chalices may rise almost a foot above ground if well grown. It is said to multiply rather quickly so would be a good candidate for naturalizing. This species, too, has a white flowering form. 

Most enchanting are the hybrids made from crosses between these two species. Best known are ‘Waterlily’ with its striking bright pink, double flowers, amethyst-violet ‘Lilac Wonder’, and ‘The Giant’ with great violet flowers ending in a white base.

Colchicum 9-06 1

Colchicum ‘The Giant’. Photo by dmp.

Double colchicum Waterlily 1

Colchicum ‘Waterlily’ Photo by dmp.

As with spring flowering bulbs, the ripening colchicum foliage in early summer may look rather untidy. It can be hidden to some extent by planting the colchicums in groundcovers, under shrubs or amid not terribly aggressive perennials. Annuals can also be used to distract the eye from the yellowing foliage. Select annuals whose colors will blend well with the pastel pink and purple fall flowers.

colchicum foliage from MO Botanical Garden

Colchicum foliage. Photo by Missouri Botanical Garden

Corms should be planted as soon as they arrive, 3 to 4 inches deep. If they begin to bloom before you get them into the ground, don’t worry. It won’t hurt them but do get them planted so roots can begin developing.

True crocuses are members of the iris family. Most are grown for their early spring blossoms but several species flower in the fall making for a delightful accent during these early autumn days.

Fall crocuses are a little harder to come by locally than the colchicums and may need to be ordered from a catalog. All produce thin, grass-like foliage in the spring and should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep.

Most vibrant but easy to grow is the rosy lavender Crocus kotschyanus. Smaller flowering C. speciosus produces blooms in a rich, violet blue. The clear, lilac blue cups of C. pulchellus sport yellow throats at their base. A rarer white fall flowering crocus can also be found.

Crocus_speciosus_Artabir_jpg by Jane McGary www.pacificbulbsociety.org 1

Crocus speciosus ‘Artabir’ by Jane McGary from http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org

These corms may be tempting to mice, chipmunks and squirrels so plant in hardware cages or lay hardware cloth or chicken wire over the ground in which they are planted if you suspect a problem with these pests.

For something a bit out of the ordinary, colchicums and fall crocuses may be just the touch of excitement your fall garden needs.

Dawn P.