Minor Bulbs Have a Major Impact
Crocuses are some of the most popular and satisfying minor bulbs that will not only survive from year to year but may actually proliferate.
By Thomas Christopher
I’ve been scanning bulb catalogs recently, looking for the ones that I’ll plant this fall to bloom next spring. As usual, I find myself gravitating to the so-called “minor” bulbs. These are minor only in the sense of size – typically they are compact types that grow smaller than the familiar, full-sized tulips and daffodils. But the smaller bulbs’ blossoms and foliage have a delicacy that especially appeals to me. Several types have proven especially persistent in my garden, long outliving, in particular, the bolder but less perennial hybrid tulips. This longevity makes the minor bubs a particularly good investment.
My favorites among the minor bulbs are the crocuses. Not the larger, more obvious Dutch hybrid crocuses but the smaller species types with small, softer-hued blossoms. Some of these will not only survive from year to year but may actually proliferate. The white, pale purple, and yellow flowered snow crocuses (Crocus chrysanthus) I have scattered through my front lawn have done this. They bloom early, as soon as the last snow melts, and are already growing dormant by the time I first have to mow the lawn in late May, so that they aren’t harmed by the clipping. “Tommy crocuses” – Crocus tommasinanus – are another early blooming type, and like the snow crocuses they are hardy to USDA zone 3. Tommies will also naturalize in a lawn, bearing lavender to reddish-purple flowers year after year, and I think I’ll try them this year.
I’ve also had good luck with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). I love their very early, pendant, green and white blossoms, and their reliability. They are also hardy to USDA zone 3 and they have established themselves in my lawn in slowly expanding clusters that every few years my wife lifts and separates while in full, leafy growth, transplanting the resulting divisions to new locations. As a result, they are all over the garden now, popping up in beds as well as the turf. All of them descend from a couple of clusters given to me by the son of an elderly friend in the spring after the father’s funeral 29 years ago. The father, William A. Owens, was my writing mentor as well as an enthusiastic gardener, and the descendants of his snowdrops and are especially welcome because they remind me of him.
Other minor bulbs I favor include winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), another early spring bloomer whose buttercup-like flowers sit atop green, leafy collars. These are also super hardy (to USDA zone 3) and will thrive in full sun or partial shade. They prefer a consistently moist spot, however, and don’t seem pleased with the spot where I planted them at the edge of a sugar maple’s canopy. Mine have persisted for many years, but they are said to seed themselves about where their need for moisture is better met.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) and squills (Scilla siberica) are also good choices for naturalizing in lawns. They are reliably perennial, thrive in sun or partial shade, and are hardy throughout our region: grape hyacinths overwinter successfully in USDA zone 4, while squills will survive as far north as zone 2. Perhaps because they are so popular and widely planted, these provoke my inner plant snob, and I prefer to spend my money on the less common striped squill (Pushkinia scilloides) and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae). The striped squills have pale blue, star-like flowers whose petals are marked with a central stripe of darker blue, while the glory-of-the-snow bears loose clusters of lilac blue to soft violet blue flowers with small white centers. These too prefer full sun or partial shade; the striped squills are hardy to USDA zone 4, while glory-of-the-snow are reliably perennial through zone 3.
Like most bulbs, these minor bulbs require a well-drained soil. Most will flourish in a lawn if the first mowing is postponed until the bulbs’ foliage yellows in late spring, and the grass is left unwatered in the summertime. They are also ideal for rock gardens and I like them scattered through the edges of perennial beds, where they provide floral color while their larger neighbors are just beginning to break dormancy. Typically, it is recommended that they be planted in sweeps, to compensate for the small size of the individual blossoms. I like them just fine, though, as singletons or in small clusters, where they must be admired on bended knee.
Thomas Christopher is the co-author of “Garden Revolution” (Timber Press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden. berkshirebotanical.org Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through 25 display gardens and a diverse range of classes informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors on horticultural topics every year. Thomas Christopher is the co-author of Garden Revolution (Timber press, 2016) and is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden. berkshirebotanical.org.