A DOZEN BULBS THAT SHOULD BE MORE WIDELY GROWN
by TOM FISCHER
There are good reasons why everyone (or nearly everyone) grows daffodils and tulips—they’re beautiful, reliable, affordable, and easily available. But the world of bulbs is vast, and there are wonderful treasures to be found if you take the time to search them out. We’ve chosen 12 of our favorite little-known bulbs to tempt you to try something new this year, but there are hundreds, even thousands, more awaiting discovery. All you have to lose is a few dollars; what you have to gain is a richer, more diverse, and more interesting garden. So go ahead—take a walk on the wild side.
USDA ZONE 5; TO 24 IN.
Purple, mauve, white, and yellow are the colors usually associated with ornamental onions, but a number of species come in various shades of blue, from light to dark. One of the prettiest is A. caesium, native to western Siberia and central Asia. It’s a variable species, so be sure to seek out a good, skyblue form. Often the petals have a darker midrib, which adds to the overall effect. Another of A. caesium‘s valuable traits is its lengthy, mid- to late-summer bloom period, well after most alliums have retired for the year.
USDA ZONE 4; 3-6 IN.
This little shade-loving charmer is a hybrid between the wood anemone, A. nemorosa, and yellow-flowered A. ranunculoides. The delicate, divided leaves are tinged with bronze when they emerge, and, thanks to the phenomenon of hybrid vigor, the mid-spring display of cheerful, primrose-yellow flowers is lavish. Not strictly a bulb, A. xlipsiensis grows from slender rhizomes, but is often to be found in the catalogs of bulb specialists. Plant the rhizomes in well-drained, humus-rich soil that never becomes completely dry. When conditions are to its liking, A. xlipsiensis will eventually form a dense carpet. Bear in mind that the entire plant disappears in summer.
USDA ZONE 4; 4 IN.
Chionodoxas and scillas are two of the best groups of blue-flowered bulbs for early spring. In xC. allenii, a vigorous hybrid between Chionodoxa forbesii and Scilla bifolia, we get the best of both worlds. Each one-sided raceme bears dense clusters of star-shaped, rich blue flowers, each of which is a full inch across and fused at the base, like those of its Chionodoxa parent. Occasionally, named forms, such as ‘Fra Angelico’, are available.
RED- AND PINK-FLOWERED FORMS, USDA ZONE 5; 4 IN.
For many years, the forms of Corydalis solida most commonly available were nothing to get excited about, since the flowers tended to be either a washy mauve or murky puce. All that changed, however, with the discovery of a population of red- and pink-flowered plants. With the infusion of this new genetic material, what was once an ugly duckling has become a swan. Most exciting of all are the red-flowered forms, which light up the woodland garden in earliest spring. The selection ‘George Baker’ has been around for a number of years, and has light red flowers with a salmon tint. New cultivars are becoming available every year, however, some of which are a pure scarlet (beware: these newcomers can be hair-raisingly expensive). Nearly as lovely are some of the clear pink selections, such as ‘Blushing Girl’. All are of the easiest culture, requiring only a leafy soil in partial shade. After their two- to three-week bloom period, in early spring, the plants disappear entirely. If you’re lucky, self-sown seedlings will spring up.
USDA ZONE 3; 8-20 IN.
There’s something exciting about plants with near-black flowers, and the fritillaries offer a number of excellent examples. Fritillaria camschatcensis, a species native to both Asia and North America, is one of the easiest to grow, provided it’s given partial shade and leafy, moist soil that never dries out entirely. Variable in height, it bears one to six of its strange, dusky flowers per stem and has broad, light green, lanceolate leaves. Bloom time is late spring to early summer.
ERANTHIS xTUBERGENIANA ‘GUINEA GOLD’
USDA ZONE 5; 4 IN.
The common winter aconite (E. hyemalis) is a familiar and much-loved harbinger of spring, spreading into carpets of golden, globe-shaped flowers when allowed to multiply undisturbed. Even lovelier, however (if such a thing were possible), is the offspring between E. hyemalis and E. cilicica, which has been dubbed E. xtubergeniana; ‘Guinea Gold’, selected by the Dutch bulb merchant J. M. C. Hoog, is its finest expression. More vigorous than either parent, this hybrid also bears larger flowers, which appear somewhat later in the spring. The ruff of leaves that surrounds each flower is also tinted bronze. Because E. xtubergeniana is sterile, it can be increased only by vegetative methods (and is hence somewhat pricey); if your plants produce seedlings, you have an impostor.
USDA ZONE 4; 8 IN.
Looking at this native of central Asia, you’d never guess it was an herbaceous member of the barberry family. Or maybe you would, since the clusters of three-quarter-inch yellow flowers, beautifully marked with coppery red on the exteriors of the petals, are somewhat reminiscent of a mahonia or barberry. Gymnospermium albertii should be planted in full sun; its only quirk is that it needs to be kept dry during its summer dormancy.
IPHEION ‘ROLF FIEDLER’
USDA ZONE 6; 4 IN.
Only its somewhat limited hardiness can explain why the beautiful South American species Ipheion uniflorum is not more widely grown. Each bulb produces a cluster of long, narrow, slightly glaucous leaves, above which are borne the star-shaped flowers. Of all the selections currently available, ‘Rolf Fiedler’ (which may be a hybrid rather than the pure species) is undoubtedly the finest, with larger, fuller flowers than the type, in a clear sky blue. Bloom is March to April.
USDA ZONE 5; 4-5 IN.
This delightful relative of I. reticulata merits a place in the garden not only for its own undeniable beauty, but also because it needs to be conserved: in the wild it is confined to a single mountain in the Caucasus. Blooming a little later than the reticulatas, I. winogradowii is an excellent garden plant—infinitely superior to I. danfordiae—as long as it is given the partial shade it prefers and a humus-rich soil that doesn’t become desiccated in summer. Not cheap, but worth every penny.
USDA ZONE 5; 2-3 FT.
Unfortunately, the weedy species of Ornithogalum have given the genus a bad rap. But there are many magnificent species that easily merit garden space. Native to southwestern Russia, O. magnum is one of the finest, towering to three feet in the May border and crowned with a pyramidal cluster of gleaming white flowers, marked with a green stripe on the back of the petals. It’s best to plant the bulbs where their early-appearing and somewhat undistinguished foliage will be screened by neighboring plants. Easy to accommodate in any soil, provided it gets full sun.
OXALIS ‘IONE HECKER’
USDA ZONE 6; 3 IN.
Some of you may gasp at the idea of actually cultivating a member of the genus Oxalis, but you won’t regret planting ‘lone Hecker’, a hybrid between two fine South American species, O. laciniata and O. enneaphylla. Their offspring bears divided, pleated leaves in a pleasing gray green, and the large lavender flowers are beautifully veined in deep violet. A perfect candidate for a trough or the rock garden, it is most definitely not a weed.
TRITELEIA LAXA ‘KONINGIN FABIOLA’
(‘QUEEN FABIOLA’) USDA ZONE 5; 20-24 IN.
It’s high time that American gardeners became better acquainted with the stunning native genus Triteleia. One of the most garden-worthy is T. laxa, a variable species found in the wild from northern California to southwestern Oregon. Happily, the mid-blue form ‘Koningin Fabiola’ is offered in many bulb catalogs (if you want a darker blue, look for ‘Corinna’). The slender stems bear rounded clusters of up-facing, funnel-shaped flowers, each of which is one to three inches long, in early summer. Nothing could be lovelier threaded through a sunny border. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 76.