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Unusual Bulbs for the Garden

Planting anything is an act of hope, but planting bulbs is a promise that winter ends. Tucking a few bulbs in the ground (and maybe a few in pots for indoor forcing, because I’m impatient) is such a satisfying fall task. The garden goes to sleep but we dream of the bright tulips and golden daffodils that will rise come spring.

Yet bulbous delights don’t begin and end in spring, and they’re not always what we picture. There are hardy bulbs that bloom at surprising moments—late winter, early summer, even the fall—or with an unexpected color, shape or size.

Hardy Bulbs for Summer and Fall

Please plant more allium—all the allium. The bulbous types are a diverse, drought-tolerant, deer- and rodent-impervious, easy-growing group offering a wide zonal range and a size, shape and bloom time for every taste. For the most part, they tend to bloom in late spring or early summer, when crocus, hyacinths, daffodils and tulips are fading memories. And after their color fades, their interesting seed heads can be left in place for ornament and to encourage them to self sow, because the only thing better than allium is more allium. But if you want a staider display, simply deadhead as the blooms fade, and you won’t find volunteers to edit down the line.

Large-headed alliums like ‘Gladiator’, ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘Globemaster’ will always turn heads with their purple lollipops standing proudly above a low bed of grasses or mingling amid a perennial bed. They’re astounding, and they come at the tail end of traditional “bulb season.” They’ve also become rather familiar. Less common choices supply hues of white, pink, yellow and blue, smaller stature and later flowers. Allium karataviense has interesting, very broad, glaucous foliage that unfolds in spring, then makes a stately frame for the large, round white bloom that appears in early summer.

Allium karataviense has broad foliage framing its large early-summer flowers.

Allium karataviense has broad foliage framing its large early-summer flowers.

Smaller-headed alliums can bob among perennials at varying heights. Examples include the white-flowered A. nigrum, reaching to three feet tall, and the shorter, mulberry-colored drumstick allium (A. sphaerocephalon). This species is especially fantastic because it arrives so late: July in my southern New England garden (USDA Zone 6b).

Drumstick allium, photographed beginning to bloom in mid-July in Maine.

Drumstick allium, photographed beginning to bloom in mid-July in Maine.

The genus touts several options for the playful souls among us. One absolute eye-catcher is A. schubertii, whose bloom resembles a firework frozen in place, adding some explosive magic to your perennial border (without destruction) in late spring.

Once the alliums go over, tender bulbs and tubers take over—think dahlia, plus canna, calla, caladium and colocasia. These are tender or tropical plants, but there’s a few perfectly hardy “c” blubs that provide color as autumn arrives: Colchicum and Crocus.

Colchicum are a boon to the truly impatient. I think of them as the radishes of the bulb world—it seems that just as soon as you plant them, they appear! I once ordered a few colchicum at an end-of-season fall sale and they arrived trying to bloom in the bag, white stems twisting around each other. I planted them and in a blink the delightful blooms popped up, their pink, white and lavender blooms sparking curiosity and confusion from passing neighbors.

'Waterlily' colchicum, a fall bloomer.

'Waterlily' colchicum, a fall bloomer.

Most colchicum have a similarly shaped bloom to crocus—hence the common name, autumn crocus—but they are slightly taller and larger. ‘Lilac Wonder’, C. byzantinum and ‘Waterlily’ (a lavender-pink double form that lives up to its name) are some of the more easily found of this underused bulb. Plant a few near the front of border or along a pathway you travel frequently so they can surprise you as the rest of the garden fades.

You might also plant a true autumn crocus, Crocus sativus—and get your tweezers out to harvest your own saffron to dry for winter paella. This species has a slightly narrower zonal range than colchicums, but how delightful they are! I’ve mixed them with colchicum near my mailbox, where their smaller lavender blooms follow its more pink flowers. I have some good ol’ average spring crocus planted there, too, so this bed that I visit daily is both the first and the last to bloom in my garden.

The aptly named autumn crocus.

The aptly named autumn crocus.

Winter Delights and Wondrous Daffs

If eager beavers delight you, then a few snowdrops (Galanthus) will surely make you smile. Likely to bloom in snow alongside the most precocious of hellebores, these petite delights warn you to finish up any dormant pruning and that your weeding days are imminent. In my garden, snowdrops are solidly a winter bloomer, welcoming back our earliest pollinators with the first spring crocus and the feathery blooms of witch hazel. If you are lucky enough to have a pond or stream, these woodland natives would flourish along its edge, because they prefer some moisture. For the pond-deprived among us, a pocket near a downspout in part sun makes a nice spot. It suits them, and you’re unlikely to miss their bloom.

Snowdrops are known to bloom while the snow may still fly.

Snowdrops are known to bloom while the snow may still fly.

Here’s another pint-sized curiosity to make you do a double take: Iris reticulata. The garden is asleep, it’s the season of cold mud—and there’s a tiny...iris? Yep! They bloom unexpectedly early, late winter to early spring (around March for me in 6b), with unmistakable iris flowers that top out at just four to six inches. Their grassy foliage is short at first, but it elongates comically as the bulb builds it stores for next spring. But their yellow, white, deep purple or blue leaning flowers are worth it so early in the year. Iris reticulata proves resistant to deer, fitting for a rock garden or under trees, drought tolerant, easy to grow and, most importantly, pretty, with its shades of blue, purple, yellow and white!

Short-statured Iris reticulata is a natural fit for rock gardens.

Short-statured Iris reticulata is a natural fit for rock gardens.

I don’t need to tell you daffodils are wonderful, do I? Daffodils are wonderful! They naturalize, deer and rodents won’t eat them, they’re cheerful and you likely have a stack of catalogs with pages of mixes and timing information. So plan to plant daffodils come fall. But along with the expected gold cultivars, try some salmon-cupped ones, like ‘Pink Charm’. I’m partial to their soft color.

Narcissus bulbicodium is a curious bulb known as the hoop or petticoat daffodil.

Narcissus bulbicodium is a curious bulb known as the hoop or petticoat daffodil.

And for a daff that’s really different, there’s the seldom-planted Narcissus bulbicodium, sometimes called hoop daffodil or petticoat daffodil. Its yellow or white flowers are all cup and very little perianth (outer petals), giving them a distinctive look. They’re also short, topping out at about six inches, with very grassy foliage. Best to place them among other perennials or in pockets along the edge of the garden, though they’d also be a pretty addition to a woods’ edge or massed on a hillside. 

Image credits:

Allium karataviense by Andrey Zharkikh/CC BY 2.0

Drumstick allium by Michele Dorsey Walfred/CC BY 2.0

Waterlily colchicum by Derek Winterburn/CC BY-ND 2.0

Autumn crocus by Alvin Kho/CC BY-SA 2.0

Iris reticulata by Alvin Kho/CC BY-SA 2.0

Hoop daffodil by Drew Avery/CC BY 2.0