There are many beautiful bulbs that pop up in the Springtime – but the early spring is one of the periods that many folks neglect when planning their bulb planting. In this post we’re going to have a quick look at just a few of the best bulbs for this season, flowering in Late January, February and early March. I would like to stress at this point that by the time Spring rolls round it is already too late to plant these bulbs and still get them to flower! Spring flowering bulbs need to be planted in the Fall (autumn) or in some cases the late Summer – a time when most people are not thinking about their early-springtime-garden. Bulbs are not like seeds – they are really just hibernating plants, and they mostly do not like being out the ground for long. Plant them as soon as you receive them from your mail-order specialist or local supplier – they will not keep for long in storage.
So, let’s start with some relatively easy ones – you’ll see these in stores and mail-order suppliers listings if you look – the Chionodoxa. These are really a close relative of the Scilla, and a slightly more distant relative of the Hyacinth and Grape Hyacinth. There is even a Chionodoxa-Scilla hybrid called x Chionoscilla allenii, which shows how closely related they are.
There are a handful of commonly-offered varieties, which are grown on large-scale by the fantastic Dutch Bulb growers and are therefore pretty cost-effective to buy. These flower over a long period, provided the weather stays cold. I have tried these indoors as a ‘forced’ bulb, and they look good but for a short time only as they really do love the colder weather. The easiest to find (and easiest to grow) species are Chionodoxa forbesii , and the larger pink form Chionodoxa ‘Pink GIant’, Chionodoxa lucilliae (gigantea) and it’s white ‘alba’ form, and the striking blue Chionodoxa sardensis.
The Chionodoxa follow-on nicely from super-early bulbs like Puschkinia libanotica and Scilla mischtschenkoana, and bridge the gap before the Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) start flowering in late March. These really deserve their own post, as they are many in variety.
Tulipa humilis albo-coerulea oculata is another fine species for early flowering. There are many Species tulips on the menu – and almost all of them flower much earlier than the more famous hybrid cousins, but this is one of the rarest. The flowers are pure white with a soft royal blue ‘eye’ in the centre. These make a pretty interesting addition to an early-flowering bulb display, but can be hard to find for a reasonable price.
Narcissus – better known to most as Daffodil, although there is a technical (and boring) distinction. These are available in a great many varieties, and perhaps I will discuss them in another post. For now, these are a few highlights. It is worth noting that unless you get your Narcissus from a Narcissus specialist nursery, you may not get the variety you think you’re getting. Harvests can be variable, and mix-ups happen in the warehouses after harvest, so keep your expectations in check. This is a striking variety which we believe is Narcissus ‘White Lion’, although it was originally supplied to me as something else. It is pretty awesome, and makes a good cut flower too.
Narcissus ‘Rapture’ is a cyclameneus-type variety, which has been bred from the original Narcissus cyclameneus species. It is pretty true-to-form, and has elegant swept-back petals and flowers very early in the year. You can tell from the angle and light intensity in this image that it is an early spring morning, with just the earliest warmth coming through in the sunlight.
Similarly, Narcissus pseudonarcissus lobularis (usually sold as Narcissus lobularis) is another fine species type. These are the wild daffodil – the one that some geezer wrote poems about. These are endangered in the wild, so planting some of these in your garden is a good thing. That said, if space is limited then I would choose something different.
This is the lovely Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’. It is one of the newer pink-flowered forms that are available. I will write more about the Muscari or Grape Hyacinths in another post. These have a bad reputation because of the aggressive spreading of the ubiquitous Muscari armeniacum – the darkish blue one that you see about everywhere. All Muscari will spread to some extent, usually by seeds, but armeniacum is about the worst for it. Most of the other species are better behaved, and some are darn tricky to keep alive as they come from a very wide range in habitat, including dry mountains in Turkey and Iran.
Ipheion are a rarely-known genus of bulbs from South America, but they are pretty hardy. These are pretty closely related to the Allium (which includes Garlic and Leeks) and the foliage does have a pleasant pungent aroma when stepped on. Obviously you wouldn’t want to step on these when in flower – but they are easy to naturalise in lawns, and they also will self-seed in rockeries etc., They were once considered to be Brodiaea or Triteleia members, but are now seen as being in their own group. The flowers range in color including shades of White, Pink, and Blue. The best dark blue form might be ‘Rolf Fiedler’, which also has more rounded petals, but they are all pretty charming.
Hyacinths are often grown as indoor forcing bulbs, but they really are excellent outdoors too. The fragrance is seriously powerful, and create a very pleasant environment outdoors when in flower. There is a stunning range of color forms out there – but ‘Woodstock’ is a bit of a favorite, with deep purple-pink flowers and a heady scent. You cannot beat the blues and whites for a classic color scheme – and I would also recommend that you keep the palette limited when choosing Hyacinths, however they can also provide some serious depth and range of color early in the year when most other flowers are white, blue or yellow.
Now for something special – and rarely seen. These guys are winter-growing Gladiolus species. Let me say now that I am not a big fan of Gladiolus – they tend to be a bit ‘crass’ for my liking, but I will always make exceptions for something really cool. Now, most of the ‘Glads’ that you will see are the massive hybrids which are the product of intensive breeding efforts over about two-hundred years. Most of the major breeding has only happened in the last century, but all were derived from a handful of wild Gladiolus species from South Africa.
There are HUNDREDS of species of wild Gladiolus out there – google them – you’ll be amazed at the variety in colours and forms, and they look more like exotic orchids than ordinary ‘Glads’. This is certainly the case for these plants here, which I had growing in my unheated greenhouse for a number of years. I grew these from seed, from a cross between Gladiolus huttonii and Gladiolus tristis. The fantastic thing about growing from seed is the unpredictable nature of it – even from carefully controlled seed production there is always the possibility of some random mutation popping up – and with a cross between two species there is often a real possibility of something special turning up. These varied between the red-spotted type above, or the paler yellow types on the right. These flower in the late winter, and make great plants for a frost-free climate, although they can also survive light frosts.
A couple of perennials have snuck into this post – oops! The Cowslip, Primula veris usually has bright primrose yellow flowers, which hang their demure heads from tall stalks in early spring, usually around early March. But there is also a less-demure red-flowered form, although it can be hard to find sometimes. These are seriously good plants as they pretty much look after themselves for the rest of the year, and can even be naturalised into woodland gardens and lawns.
Likewise, another unusual colour-variant is the pink Jacob’s Ladder, Polemonium carneum. This is a pink-flowered species from north america and somewhat refreshingly different to the pan-boreal blue flowered species. This one flowered very early – but it was in a greenhouse at the time. Outdoors, they may flower sporadically between March and August.
Honesty – Lunaria biennis – needs to be sown in Summer or Autumn and will flower usually the following Spring and Summer. There are many forms out there, including variegated foliage and white flowers. All are fantastic in fertile soil, but can look weedy if grown in poor conditions.
Cardamine pentaphylla is a superb plant for shaded conditions. This plant flowers really early, with attractive palmate foliage in the early spring. Perfect for a woodland garden, butdisappears soon after flowering or when the weather gets hot.