We’ve all been there – staring at the shelves and shelves of bulbs in the Garden Center, or poring through pages and pages of online bulb-merchants.
It can quickly become overwheming – how do you choose which bulbs to grow in your garden? Which Bulbs will thrive in your climate? And how can you find something that is really different and unusual, without it being too hard to grow? In this post I hope to offer a few options and answer these questions and more.
In short, our recommended lists of Summer and Spring flowering bulbs are as follows:
Best Unusual Summer Flowering Bulbs:
- Dracunculus vulgaris
- Gladiolus x colvillei ‘The Bride’
- Cyclamen cilicium
- Crocus speciosus ‘Conqueror’
- Acis autumnalis
- Allium caesium
- Lycoris sprengeri
- Lycoris incarnata
- Nerine ‘Stefani’
Best Unusual Spring Flowering Bulbs:
- Claytonia virginica
- Asarum maculatum
- Corydalis ‘George Baker’
- Corydalis cava
- Fritillaria imperialis
- Ixiolrion tataricum
- Ixia ‘Vulcan’
- Oxalis obtusa
- Veratrum nigrum
- Zephyranthes rosea
Keep reading to find out more about these and how to grow them in your garden:
Narrowing your options
It is always hard to narrow down all the incredible bulb varieties down to a short list – it isn’t possible! There are too many!
Some of the most unusual bulb varieties are also hard to look after- requiring very specific growing conditions to thrive or even survive.
An awful lot of rare plants are unusual because they are not well-adapted to live outside of their native habitat, to which they have become so very accustomed.
The precise timings of rainfall and temperature can have the utmost importance to the ‘growth calendar’ of many plants, meaning that many plants from parts of South Africa for example will only grow during the winter months, when they require cool but not cold temperatures – although many of these species can survive cold frosts they are not well suited to the changeable and generally we climate of northern Europe, so they need special attention.
A lot of thought (and experimentation, during years working in the bulb trade) has been taken to make this list – and I have selected bulb varieties which show diversity of form, and general fitness for most gardens. Some of these species can be more demanding than others, but are well within the capability of most gardens.
Summer Flowering Bulbs
These flower over a broad part of the year and some are really more autumn-flowering than summer-flowering, but they are grouped together by most bulb merchants.
A really impressive plant when established, these have exotic foliage on mottled stems and thrive in a semi-wooded, well drained location. Late frost can be a problem for new growth, so a sheltered spot is advised, although these are very hardy provided the bulbs are planted deep. The big attraction is the HUGE flower which is a large red arum-flower (like a calla lily) and lasts for several days. On one or perhaps two of these days the flower will smell like rotting flesh, in an effort to attract their preferred pollinators – flies. The flowers are sometimes followed by a bunch of decorative (not edible) berries which contain the seeds. Flowers typically appear in late spring, early summer, but depend on the weather to some extent. Height to 1.2m.
Gladiolus x colvillei ‘The Bride’
The flowers of this reasonably hardy gladiolus ‘species’ are an early summer treat. The foliage will typically grow over the winter months, so a sheltered position is advisable. This is actually an old hybrid between Gladiolus tristis and Gladiolus cardinalis – and one of the very first man-made Gladiolus hybrids to hit the European horticultural world in the 1800’s. This pure white form of the Gladiolus x colvillei hybrid is an elegant and sturdy plant, which is barely recognizable as a ‘Gladiolus’ and looks like something much more refined and special.
An autumn-flowering (August-September usually but sometimes as late as November) hardy Cyclamen, with delicate small pink flowers with a light colouring which is pretty distinctive. There are numerous species of hardy Cyclamen to choose from, and most thrive with sharp drainage and part shade. The foliage grows through the winter months, and is pretty tough too – surviving even hard frosts.
Crocus speciosus ‘Conqueror’
This is one of the true Autumn-flowering Crocus species, not to be confused with ‘Autumn Crocus’or ‘Meadow Saffron’, which is the name given to Colchicum species. If you want to grow real saffron by the way, the species to look for is Crocus sativus, and it is a fantastic plant, but requires a sunny and sheltered position to thrive. Crocus ‘Conqueror’ however is very amenable to ordinary garden conditions so long as it isn’t waterlogged and receives some sunlight. The flowers are an intense violet-blue shade, with yellow stamens and styles. All the autumn crocus species have winter-growing foliage, so they do best in a sheltered position which allows the leaves to absorb energy without getting zapped by hard frosts.
Also known as Leucojum autumnale, this species is great in rock-gardens, and produces delightful pinkish flowers in late summer. The ‘autumn snowflake’ is a relative to the Snowdrop, and the Spring Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum (which flowers in early summer). This unusual species is a little more delicate than some, often needing a little less competition than many other bulb species, so a well-drained rockery which is reasonably dry in the summer is ideal. The foliage is narrow and grassy, and the delicate flowers appear before the foliage on tall stems to 30cm or so.
An unusual species of Allium which thrives in rock-garden situations. This species is available in a variety of colour forms, however is most commonly offered as the species ‘type’ which is a striking blue. A medium-sized Allium, which can self-seed if planted in a good spot – sharp drainage, and full sun recommended. Height to 50cm.
The Lycoris are known as ‘surprise Lilies’ in the USA where they are widely cultivated in milder parts (such as the South). Many species are pretty cold tolerant and will survive European winters if planted deep and in a good (sheltered) location, and some are frost-tender, requiring frost-free conditions during the winter while in leaf. This species has the distinction of possessing lilac pink blossoms, marked strongly with violet blue on the edges. A very unusual and special variety. Hot summers are beneficial to encourage flowering, so a sunny spot is ideal. Can also be grown in a greenhouse, where it will benefit from the milder winter temperatures.
This is a hardier species than some, and is also known as ‘Peppermint Surprise Lily’, having a ‘peppermint stick’ coloration on the new buds of red and white. Related to the Lycoris sprengeri (above) this variety has somewhat smaller flowers, and has a similar summer-dormant period. Again, these are best grown in pots in a greenhouse, but may work in the right spot outdoors. The hardiest Lycoris species is probably the orange-flowered Lycoris sanguinea, which doesn’t produce leaves until spring.
There are numerous fine selections of the hardy Nerine species N.bowdenii, and some excellent hybrids too with a wide colour palette in varying shades of pink and white. Nerine bowdenii is a South African species in the Amaryllis clan, and is widely grown in milder parts for the profusion of pink flowers produced in early autumn. ‘Stefani’ is a really solid variety with incredibly pale pink flowers and is quite possibly one of the very hardiest varieties of Nerine available. Height to 40cm when in flower.
Spring Flowering Bulbs
These include bulbs which flower in the earlier part of spring, so at a similar time to Crocus, and Narcissus species.
Known as Virginia Spring Beauty, this wonderful little spring flower from the eastern US is not widely known in Europe, but ought to be. A close relative of the Lewisia and Purslane, this plant grows from a small corm during the cooler months and is summer dormant. The flowering occurs early, usually around April and May, and somewhat sporadically as the flowers open one by one over a long period. After a number of years these can self-seed quite profusely and form a long-lasting colony. Ideally suited to naturalised situations in grass or woodland, these can make a nice addition under shrub plantings or even in alpine rockery situations, where they can become widespread but not invasive. Flowers are white with pink veins, appearing soft pink from a distance. Height to a modest 10cm in flower, with narrow, succulent, grassy foliage in Winter and early spring.
This is one of the ‘wild gingers’ which grow in temperate North America and Europe. This genus is not in the ginger family at all, but related to the Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia, therefore contains toxic compounds. The heart-shaped foliage of this fully hardy Asian variety is nicely mottled, and the unusual red flowers emerge in spring. The flowers resemble a Bulbophyllum or Dracula orchid species, with a triangular shape and otherworldly attitude.
Corydalis ‘George Baker’
This is a special intense red selection of Corydalis solida. There are other red varieties out there and they may be just as good. These flower intensively in a short period of time in early spring, often around February when little else is providing much colour. In warm weather the plants quickly become dormant, so a cooler spot is advantageous for promoting a longer flowering period. Height to 12cm, a well-drained soil is preferred – perfect for rockeries. Treat as an alpine.
A hard to find species, these are often best bought as growing plants as the tubers need precise storage requirements and unviable tubers are often sold by bulb retailers and garden centres that don’t know better. Can also be grown from seed. This species has unusual hollow tubers and will grow well in a wooded area or rockery where the sheltered climate and good drainage is beneficial. Height to 20cm on mature specimens, with colours varying in shades of purples, pinks and whites.
The Crown Imperial Fritillary should be more widely grown in gardens today. Once all the rage among Victorian gardeners, this unusual species from Turkey and Iran is well-suited to a fertile flower bed. As with Tulips, the drainage is important as waterlogging can cause problems quickly, so plant in a hole with grit and sand, and angle the bulbs slightly so the central ‘cup’ can drain. The flowers are held in a tight cluster at the top of a 1m stem (height depending on variety), and hang downwards like some kind of exquisite ornament. The flower stem is topped with a pineapple-like crown of narrow foliage. Just stunning, and available in a range of colours from deepest orange-red, to yellows and striped flowers too!
An unusual Asian species which is somewhat frost-tender. It can take most mild winters, but a hard freeze with lots of wet will finish it off. Plant these in a rockery, or in containers in the shelter of the curtilage of a building. The flowers are a startling shade of violet-blue, and have an open trumpet shape. The stems are relatively long at about 45cm, and these can really be the highlight of a raised bed during the middle of spring.
Having grown a number of Ixia outdoors over the years, this variety is probably the hardiest, and has made it through some pretty hard winters when others have perished. Ixia need cold growing conditions while they produce leaves and gather energy during the winter and early spring, so outdoor planting in a sheltered position has the best results. Plant these ideally in November, or in March if you want to try and cheat the frost. These have an intense pink flower colour. Wow!
This neat little ‘alpine’ comes from South Africa, and it is only somewhat tolerant of cold winters, needing cool to cold (but not heavily frosty) winter growing weather before flowering in early spring. The ‘bulbs’ of this species are really tiny, smaller than a pea in most cases and the foliage stays neat and compact – close to the ground. You might start off thinking that this is not a particularly impressive plant – until it flowers! Each flower is huge compared to the plant that seems to produce it, and the colours vary from seedling to seedling, being typically pink but also creams, yellows and oranges with bicolors in the mix too.
A striking plant in the Lily family, with tall spikes of flowers which look like wild Epipactis orchids gone crazy. This species has deep pink flowers on tall branching spikes in late spring. Very striking and impressive as well as being incredibly hardy.
This species is frequently offered in the catalogues, but is not so often grown despite being very easy. These are smaller relatives of the well-known ‘Amaryllis’ the Hippeastrum, and have narrow grassy foliage and numerous pink flowers in springtime, as well as sporadically after being watered heavily after dry periods. Easy to grow as a greenhouse bulb or houseplant, but not at all frost-hardy.