After the winter it’s natural to look toward the rebirth of spring. Many consider the crocus to be the first spring flower, but there are lots of little bulbs that bloom even earlier.
These little bulbs are sometimes called the “minor bulbs”. They are usually very small. But they can be just as effective as the larger flowering bulbs that come later, like tulips and daffodils. The key is to plant them in mass. Sometimes just one or two here and there are nice too; kind of a little surprise when you take the time to look.
Little beauties like crocus, snowdrops, glory of the snow and early spring iris are especially important because they give the gardener that little reminder that “spring is coming”, when they need it the most. They effectively extend the season to a time that, here in Wisconsin, sometimes even still has snow on the ground giving us a “jump on spring”.
Just like the later blooming daffodils, the little spring bulbs needed to be purchased and planted in fall. There is always next year; my favorite garden saying. Really, you can plant them any time up until the ground freezes. I think they are easier to plant than the large bulbs because they don’t have to go down as deep, usually about 3 or 4 inches. You can even plant them on top of the other bulbs to save garden space.
The biggest mistake that I have made with these little gems is not getting them uncovered early enough. We live in a maple grove so we get a very thick layer of maple leaves in the garden. If you don’t get the leaves off early enough the little cuties will bloom under the leaves and you will never see them. Or, if they do manage to poke their little heads through the leaves they will become spindly and won’t last as long. If you then decide to get the leaves off, when you remember them, you will sadly end up tearing them apart. In recent years I have made a better attempt to get most of the leaves off in fall. It’s a good excuse to get out there and get some exercise. You have to do it sooner or later, and really, don’t you have enough to do in spring? Then in spring it is an easier clean up, really just a touch up to get the ones that blew in over the winter, and you can concentrate on the areas where you know the little bulbs are coming….that is if they aren’t still covered with snow.
Early spring bulbs enjoy sunlight, but it will be fine if you plant them under deciduous trees because they will not have leaves at this time of year.
One other thing to remember; just like the bigger bulbs, don’t remove the foliage when they are done blooming. They need this to store energy for next year. Don’t worry; the rest of your garden will start to grow and you will forget all about them. If you have your bulbs naturalized in the grass, wait a week or two longer to mow the first time. Your spring bulbs will reward you for it. Many times when planting another perennial I dig them up by accident. This is not a problem, just replant them. It probably will help increase them as after they have been in the ground for a few years they tend to grow in clumps. This way you can divide them.
So let’s look more closely at some of my favorite “minor bulbs”:
Glory-of-the-snow comes in blue, white and pink. They are very hardy (zone 3 to 8) and are perfect for naturalizing, along the edge of the border or in rock gardens. The flowers are star shaped with a white or light yellow center. Bloom time is usually late March here in Wisconsin and they only grow to about 4 to 5 inches. The white and pink varieties will be a little taller; up to 8 inches.
- Snowdrop – Galanthus nivalis
Snowdrops seem to be on their own schedule. If you get a warm snap they may bloom earlier some years than others. Further south they may bloom in January but it is usually late February or March “up-north”. The stems of the common variety are about 4 inches but there are also some slightly bigger varieties. They have solitary, drooping, white flowers with green spots. Plant them near a walk or on a raised bed. Somewhere that you will notice them popping through the snow. It is amazing to see these frosty-white beauties on a sunny, but still cold and snowy afternoon.
- Dwarf Iris
There are lots of types of Dwarf Iris and most of them do grow in early spring; some earlier than others. The genus “Iris” was the name of the Greek goddess of the rainbow. I’ll briefly tell you about some of my favorites. As with most early spring flowers they are small; some only 3 inches and most under 8 inches.
Iris cristata is one that steals my heart. This is a native wildflower that spreads by underground rhizomatous stems. There are different varieties ranging slightly in size and they come in colors from purple to blue to white. They have yellow crested markings…so cute, and are super hardy and carefree. The rhizomes should be planted near or at the surface just like their larger cousins. Mimic their natural wooded habitat, which includes moist, well-draining soil and iris cristata will be happy. Adding a little leaf mold will make them sing.
Iris reticulata is another cute easy to grow miniature iris. These little ones can be purple, white or yellow. Their foliage is grassy. It will grow a little taller after the flowers fade. Lightly-scented flowers are usually violet to purple, although white, yellow, and light-blue cultivars are available. Foliage is delicate and grassy. They multiply rapidly and are excellent for rock gardens and sunny borders. The reticulated iris group consists of a number of small bulbous irises whose bulbs have netted or reticulate bulb coverings (tunics) on the dry bulbs. All species of reticulated iris are native to western Asia. Iris reticulata (purple) and Iris danfordiae (yellow) are two of most commonly known species in the reticulated group. My favorite from this group ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ is a reticulated iris hybrid, whose parents are Iris winogradowii (pale yellow flowers) and Iris histrioides (pale blue flowers). Intricately marked pale blue flowers of this hybrid have distinctive deep blue veining with a purple-spotted yellow blotch at the base of each fall. This hybrid was introduced in 1958 by E. B. Anderson and named after the wife of rare bulb enthusiast Eliot Hodgkin. These bulbs tend to generally decline for me. I think there are 2 possible reasons. First many of them, including Katherine, are listed as zone 5. They do however live through the winter and multiply in many years. Or, possibly it is because they don’t like to be wet in summer. They like it moist in spring but then need dry conditions or they will not multiply.
Miniature Dwarf Bearded Iris (MDB) is another favorite of mine. Though they are not really common, there are hundreds of varieties. This is one of the more recent things that I have been collecting, so watch for them to become available from Catrina’s Garden in future years. They are just like the large Standard Dwarf Bearded Iris except that they grow no taller than 8 inches and bloom earlier. Some are only 2 inches tall. Here in WI they bloom in late March or early April. MDB iris does best in climates that are cold in the winter. They are great in rock gardens or raised beds. It is nice to have them raised a bit so that you can smell them, because many of them are fragrant. Here are some of my new babies (click on a picture to see a slide show then click in the gray area to return):
Crocuses are among one of the most popular of the early spring bloomers. There are many different species and cultivars but there are 3 main groups: C. chrysanthus (Golden Crocus), C. vernus (Dutch Crocus) and the third group is varied types of botanic species crocus. There are Crocus species that flower in autumn also. This is the type of crocus that saffron comes from. Golden crocus are very small and flower the earliest. Dutch crocus have larger flowers that are later and tend to be more pastel. This is the most common type. They naturalize nicely, or can be grown in the rock garden or somewhere that you will see them often. Crocus come in a wide range of colors from different shades of purple, blues, pinks, whites and yellows. There are even striped crocus. The foliage is grass like and some species have a silver strip down the center of each blade. They are actually corms rather than bulbs. Be sure to plant them with the point up and the roots down. Well actually even if you plant them upside down they will adjust. Crocuses love cold climates like zones 3 to 7 and will not do well where it is hotter. They like to be in the sun and will actually close up when it is cloudy. They do best in a sandy or gritty soil; something that will drain well. Animals like voles and mice will sometimes eat crocus. If you have a problem with this planting them away from the house or in areas without a lot of cover may help. Some people that have real problems with this put them inside little wire cages under the ground.
- Siberian Squill – Scilla SibericScilla is one of the earliest spring flowers to bloom. Flowering for a remarkably long time they bear clusters of bloom spikes that offer scented deep, true blue nodding bell shaped flowers. Theay are exquisite when planted under spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias. They are also one of the easiest bulbs to naturalize because the foliage matures quickly and is not as sensitive to mowing. They will eventually form large drifts in your lawn because they multiply by seed as well as the little bulbs producing offshoots. They tolerate more shade and a wider range of soil conditions also. You may find them popping up in unexpected places once they are established in your landscape because birds spread the seed.
This time of year it seems we can have it all. I enjoy skiing and our ski hill here is still open, and the conditions are amazingly good, but we can also enjoy these little “signs of spring”; just about the time that we begin to think that winter will never end.