With a little work in October we will be rewarded with a major color show in early spring, when the rest of the landscape assumes a brown and grey color scheme. Tulips and daffodils may be our first recollection of spring flowering bulbs; however, a myriad of lesser known bulbs are easy to plant and will provide years of spring delight.
For those of us with little extra time and often little extra energy these small bulbs are the perfect spring tonic. The required planting holes are a mere 2-3 inches deep and since they look best planted in groups a couple digs with a trowel is enough preparation for their happy home. Although these are not all true bulbs, we refer to them as bulbs for convenience. Look for these lesser known bulbs at a garden center near you.
As soon as the soil warms, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) pops up. Since they flower early, most of these upstarts are only 6-8 inches tall. It is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom appearing in February to March, when sleet and snow would annihilate whimpier flowers. Smart little winter aconite flowers close until the weather improves. The one inch flowers are bright yellow buttercups. They have an aura of formality with their green Elizabethan collars. Winter aconite is lovely in rock gardens or massed in large naturalized areas. Allerton Park in Monticello has a delightful patch of them at the main entrance.
Winter aconite tubers look like refrigerator leftovers, left over way too long. If they are particularly dry and wrinkled, soak them overnight, then plant immediately. Bulbs don't come marked "this side up." With most bulbs the pointed tip is planted upwards. Winter aconite have an ambiguous top and bottom. The bottom has a small round scar where the roots will emerge. Still can't tell? Plant them on their side and let the tuber figure it out.
Soon after the winter aconite, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) will appear, often before the snow has melted. The small nodding white flowers appear in late February and March with dark green strap-like leaves. Several cultivars are available such as the double-flowered 'Flore Pleno'.
A tough little bulb is the grape hyacinth (Muscari spp). Leaves appear in fall, winter over and die back in early summer. Flowers appear from March into June. The blue purple clusters of small urn shaped flowers contrast beautifully with yellow daffodils. Grape hyacinths produce many offsets (baby bulbs) so they can be transplanted even when they are in flower to other areas of the garden. Grape hyacinths tolerate wet areas better than most bulbs. Plant grape hyacinth with fall flowering crocus for multi-season appeal.
Other bulbs to consider are the early spring pastel colored flowers of Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda) or the intense deep blue flowers of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris) has reddish purple, checkerboard patterned flowers in April. Giant snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) is a bit taller at 12-16 inches with nodding white flowers and a kiss of green on each petal. Striped squill (Pushkinia scilloides) has blue and white spikes of flowers in April and May.
If those persistent big leaves of tulips and daffodils bother you, then the small leaves of these lesser known bulbs are perfect. Critter problems in the garden got you down? Squirrels and rabbits don't seem to bother these bulbs nearly as much as tulips and crocus.
Don't think you have room in your flower garden for bulbs? Just remember in spring all those perennials are small. Plant bulbs next to peonies, hosta, daylilies or ornamental grasses or among groundcovers. Plant near walkways for a surprise treat when the winds of winter are still blowing in early spring. Check out UI Extension website, Bulbs & More http://extension.illinois.edu/bulbs/