BY BRUCE CRAWFORD Manager of Horticulture, Morris County Parks Commission; Board Member, NJ Nursery & Landscape Association
Every August numerous catalogs arrive from bulb companies, only to be placed into a rainy day pile that often never arrives. Part of the lackluster appeal could be the tiresome focus on Tulips, Daffodils and Hyacinths, plants we have repeatedly seen and planted. It is time for something new – the minor bulb! Often overlooked, minor bulbs pack a colorful punch for the garden that grows ever larger each year.
To be proper, bulbs should technically be called geophytes. The word literally means ‘Earth Plant’, as Geo is from the Greek Gea for Earth and Phytefrom Phyto for plant. A true bulb is composed of modified storage leaves, as is easily seen when an onion is sliced open. Another class of geophyte is a corm, which is actually a modified stem. Outwardly looking very similar to a bulb, a prime example is a Crocus. The last significant group are Stem Tubers. Also a modified stem, they often look much like raisins! Complicating matters further, geophytes are divided further into major and minor bulbs. Major bulbs measure over 1" in diameter and include Daffodils and Tulips, while minor bulbs are 1" or less.
Minor bulbs are certainly easy plants to grow. With many going dormant by late May, they can be planted in woodland or sunny locations. They are also easy to plant. Prepare a hole that is 3-times their diameter in depth, or roughly 2-3" deep. It is best to plant 3-4 minor bulbs per hole and to buy them in allotments of 100 for the best show!
The choices can be overwhelming, but some of my ‘Raves and Favs’ include Crocus, Galanthus and Eranthis. All naturalize readily and both Galanthus and Eranthis have also proven to be deer resistant. Furthermore, some species bloom in the fall!
The autumn blooming Bieberstein’s Crocus, botanically called Crocus speciosus is a must have! The species epithet of speciosus means beautiful and that aptly describes the blossoms. Blooming from mid-October into November, the light blue flowers are 2" across with both the inside and outside of the petals laced with dark blue venation or nectar guides. The center of the flowers are dramatically adorned by a tessellated orange style. The grass-like foliage appears from late March through mid-May and blends well with turf grass or low ornamental grasses. The plants lightly spread, yet are not invasive!
For early March color, Crocus tommasinianus, commonly known as Tommasini’s or Tom’s Crocus is also great for naturalizing. Native to limestone hills in Dalmatia, the plants produce flowers ranging from near white to lavender-blue. The species is ideal for planting into lawns or woodland gardens. Unlike many of the larger flowered hybrids, this species yields very slender foliage, allowing it to blend well with turf. Conveniently, the seed pods mature close to the ground, preventing them from being removed if mown before they ripen.
Another gem is Eranthis hyemalis, the Winter Aconite. A member of the buttercup family, it remains true to its family roots by displaying bright ‘buttercup yellow’ flowers in late February into March. The flowers appear atop a whirl of foliage, much like a frog perched upon a lily pad. The plants are 4-6" tall while in bloom
and stretch up to 6-10" following bloom. When planting the stem tubers in autumn, soak them for 2-4 hours before planting, ensuring they are well hydrated and will actively grow. They also transplant well immediately after blooming.
Galanthus, commonly called Snowdrops, is a true bulb and has two species that are readily available: Galanthus nivalis, the Common Snowdrop and Galanthus elwesii, the Giant Snowdrop. Galanthus comes from the Greek Gála, meaning Milk and Anthos for flower, referring to the milky white pendant flowers that appear in late January into March. The Common Snowdrop grows to 8" tall, with 1" diameter flowers while not unexpectedly, the Giant Snowdrop is slightly larger, with flowers opening to 2" in diameter and stretching upwards of 10-12" tall.
With catalogues arriving daily, consider these colorful and inexpensive minor bulbs for your yard. Easy to plant and requiring little care, what they do provide for the garden is anything but minor!