The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Spring Bulbs that Light up Early

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

They are called minor bulbs but they put on a major show just as our landscapes are waking from a long winter's nap. Spring flowering minor bulbs should be planted in October for blooming in February and March when our landscapes are a lesson in the many shades of brown.

Since they flower early, most of these upstarts are only 6-8 inches tall. If those persistent big leaves of tulips and daffodils bother you, than the small leaves of minor bulbs are perfect.

As soon as the soil warms, Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis pops up. It is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom appearing in February to March. Winter Aconite will even stand up to sleet and snow. Like many of the early bloomers the flowers close until the weather improves. The one-inch flowers are bright yellow buttercups. Despite their Judge Judy aura of formality with their green Elizabethan collars they are at home naturalized in ground covers and flower beds. Allerton Park in Monticello has a large patch of them at the main entrance.

Winter Aconite tubers look like something that got left in the refrigerator way too long. If they are particularly dry and wrinkled then 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. Look for a small round scar on the tuber which is the bottom where the roots will emerge. If you still can't tell, then 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. The dark green strap-like leaves appear with the flowers and continue to grow until midsummer when they fade to yellow. 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 look beautiful 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.

Other bulbs to consider are the early spring pastel colored flowers of Grecian Windflower Anemone blanda; Giant snowflake, Leucojum aestivum (April and May) nodding white flowers with a kiss of green on each petal; Checkered lily, Fritillaria meleagris (April) red purple checkerboard flowers; Striped Squill, Pushkinia scilloides (April, May) blue white spike of flowers; and Siberian Squill, Scilla siberica (March, early April) intense deep blue flowers.

Generally all the spring flowering bulbs need moist but well drained soil. Wet soils in winter will lead to bulb decline or death. At planting time add compost or 5-10-10 fertilizer (at a rate of one pound per 100 square feet) to soil. Small bulbs should be planted at 2-3 inches deep in masses of at least 6 bulbs. If squirrels are a problem then place a section of chicken wire over the soil and cover with mulch.

No room in your flower garden for bulbs? Remember in spring all those perennials are small. Plant bulbs next to peonies, hosta, daylilies or ornamental grasses. Spring flowering bulbs can also be added to ground covers such as vinca and English ivy. Most don't compete well with lawn grass. Plan now for a touch of early spring color.

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