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COLUMN: Many of the finest bulbs are overlooked by gardeners

More than 116 million Dutch flower bulbs have now made their way into Canadian garden stores, import warehouses and greenhouse coolers

More than 116 million Dutch flower bulbs have now made their way into Canadian garden stores, import warehouses and greenhouse coolers.

The high numbers may seem rather odd to the home gardener, but don’t forget, many, such as lilies, irises and freesias, are grown by greenhouse operators for cut flower production. It is, however, becoming more apparent to me each year that we are overlooking some of the very finest bulbs, and they are right under our noses.

We tend to overemphasize tulips, daffodils and hyacinths in our gardens, while ignoring other bulbs which are actually better long- term investments.  A visit to Keukenhof, Holland’s famous spring garden opened my eyes to the use of minor bulbs.  Muscari (grape hyacinths) were used very effectively as borders, underplantings and as drifts of colour under trees and shrubs.

For smaller pockets, you will be dazzled with many fabulous long-lasting perennial varieties like the white M. album, the soft blue ‘Valerie Finnis’, the bi-colour M. latifolium and the feathery M. comosum ‘Plumosum’. Muscari are hardy in all zones and will tolerate little or no water in summer. This makes them ideal for planting under large trees where moisture is often a problem.  They prefer full sun or partial shade.  Crocus chrysanthus provide us with some of the most beautiful and interesting crocus colours. They naturalize well and thrive in sun or light shade. For a yearly repeat performance, the earliest bulbs to bloom are the yellow aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and beautiful snowdrops.  Both perennialize nicely and create a more lovely display year after year.  The yellows and whites really pop in late winter, lifting our spirits and announcing that spring is on its way!

The old fashioned bluebells that so many European folks ask for are actually scillas or squills.  All of them flower in clusters on leafless stalks and have either bell-shaped or star-like flowers. I like them best planted in informal groupings among shrubs, deciduous trees or low-growing perennials. They are great in pots too and scillas make lovely cut flowers for tiny bouquets.  The real sleeper in all the minor bulbs is Anemone blanda.  These look for all the world like miniature daisies, and I was absolutely in awe when I saw how they were being used in Keukenhof Gardens. The variety called ‘White Splendor’ was used in massive borders and underplantings with virtually every type of tulip and narcissus which blooms during their long flowering period. Their white colour tended to lift all the other colours.

There are still many of these great little minor bulbs we have yet to discover, but I suggest you give the ones I’ve mentioned a try. You won’t be disappointed.