August 25, 2017

Beautiful bulbs

Plant now for colourful blooms from fall right into next summer

brian minter

Canadians are enjoying a renewed love affair with bulbs. It was a heartwarming display of national pride to see so many folks celebrating our country’s 150th birthday by planting Canadian Celebration and Canada 150 tulips, and I hope many more do so again this fall.

The long cold winter of 2016-’17 prompted a greater appreciation this spring for early colour in our gardens. When the first snowdrops bloomed, followed by aconites and crocuses, there was a real sense of relief that spring was finally on its way, though much delayed. 

It’s curious to see where the trend is going when it comes to bulbs. Millennials, for example, have a great interest in the saffron crocus. These unique bulbs are only available at this time of year, and surprisingly, they bloom about three weeks after planting. First cultivated in or around Persia, they are the only source of the exotic and expensive saffron spice. It takes 1,700 tiny orange-red stigmas to make one ounce (28 grams) of saffron, but stigmas from about 12 saffron crocuses are enough to season a good-sized paella. 

Other bulbs that will bloom this summer and fall are real treats to refresh a tired garden. Crocus zonatus, C. speciosus and C. pulchellus are saffron’s cousins and all tend to naturalize rather easily. Come September, they will be available in most garden stores and are really quite inexpensive.

Cool for winter

The best-known and hardiest of the fall-blooming bulbs are the colchicums, also called the autumn crocus. They come in shades of lavender and pure white. ‘Waterlily’ is a double lavender; C. ‘The Giant’ is a large single lavender that naturalizes beautifully over time; and C. ‘Album,’ although harder to find, is a very showy white that looks stunning when planted among grasses like Japanese blood grass. They all add a curious colour splash to our fall gardens and in just a few years they multiply easily for a stunning display.

Moving on to winter, galanthus (snowdrops), one of the earliest bulbs to bloom, are another bellwether of spring. Once the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is planted in well-drained soil, it tends to naturalize easily, spreading in beautiful nodding drifts of white. Snowdrops are magnificent in small space lawns, under trees or with small groupings of shrubs.

The yellow winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is an almost forgotten garden superstar. Blooming at the same time as snowdrops, or in some cases earlier, they look for all the world like miniature buttercups.  Once established, they spread nicely to form little yellow carpets, and what a sight they are when planted among ground covers such as the dark-leafed and variegated ajugas.

Signs of spring

Crocuses really introduce spring in a big way, and one of the biggest show-offs is C. vernus, also known as the Dutch crocus. Like snowdrops, crocuses love living in lawns or in and around small shrubs. I plant mine among the yellow evergreen ground cover Sedum ‘Angelina.’ What a dynamic duo! They take so little space and yet cluster up beautifully in shades of striped lavender, purple, yellow and white. 

One of the great spring minor bulbs, the charming Spanish squills (Scilla bifolia) look like miniature hyacinths. They come in shades of pink, blue and white. Cousins of the famous English bluebell (Scilla nutans), they multiply for a carpet of colour in May and bloom for about three weeks.

Talk about trending upward, the onion family is enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity. Some of the last groups of bulbs to bloom in fall are the curious ornamental alliums. The stars of the allium show are, of course, the big guys. Allium giganteum, growing on one- to two-metre-tall stems (up to 118 inches), has giant flowers about the size of a softball, that form in late June and look amazing waving gently in summer breezes. If the lavender varieties are mixed with the white A. ‘Album’, they look like big bubblegum bubbles. Even bigger is A. ‘Globemaster’ which, no kidding, grows blooms six to eight inches (15 to 20 centimetres) across.  My favourite, however, is A. schubertii, which looks like a shooting star and grows blooms up to 12 inches (30 cm) or more across. My second favourite allium is A. cristophii. Like A. schubertii, it displays huge clusters of lavender flowers with a distinctive metallic sheen. When finished, these blooms will dry naturally on the stem and can be used as striking accents in dried flower arrangements.   

I really admire the clever Vancouver Parks Board gardeners who pick these dried allium blooms and stick them in annual flowerbeds as centrepieces. During a garden writers meeting in Vancouver, they were the photo op of the day. 

From these giants to the tiny yellow Allium moly, A. ‘Drumstick,’ the Turkestan Onion (A. karataviense) and A. sphaerocephalon, alliums have certainly captured the imagination of younger gardeners. Alliums are very hardy, deer resistant, ideal as cut flowers and well suited to today’s small space gardens.

The latest trend in bulbs is the magic of combinations. By packaging together a designer selection of easy-grow bulbs that synergize nicely in bloom time and colouring, the bulb industry is beginning to engage a whole new gardening generation. Combinations like ‘Wind and Tide’ and ‘Spring Cheer’ hit all the right notes for easy care, drama and deer resistance.

Pops of colour

Most of these bulbs are ideal for small space gardens and, as they multiply each year, their performance becomes even more spectacular. All the bulbs mentioned, except the crocuses, are deer resistant, and depending on their bloom period, they will all spice up your spring, summer and fall gardens and containers.

Fall gardens truly can use a pop of colour and as winter tends to linger, the whole series of easy, colourful and inexpensive bulbs perform their magic and brighten our spirits. The trendy alliums are the orchestra leader’s baton to climax the thrilling end of the spring bulb performance.

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