COLUMN: Minor bulbs a colourful addition to gardens

Over 116 million Dutch flower bulbs have now made their way into Canadian garden stores ...

  • Oct. 24, 2015 11:00 a.m.

Gardening by Brian Minter

Over 116 million Dutch flower bulbs have now made their way into Canadian garden stores, import warehouses and greenhouse coolers. Canada is the ninth largest Dutch bulb-importing country in the world.

I’m sure it would be no surprise if I were to tell you that tulips are the number one bulb we import. You might be interested to hear that gladiolas are right behind and then, way down in quantities but still important, are lilies, hyacinths, narcissus, irises, crocuses, amaryllis, dahlias, freesias and anemones.

The high numbers of some of these bulbs may seem rather odd to the home gardener, but don’t forget, many of these bulbs such as lilies, irises and freesias are grown-on 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 that will add so much value to our gardens.

We tend to plant tulips, daffodils and hyacinths in our gardens, while glossing over other bulbs that 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, under-plantings and as drifts of colour under trees and shrubs. There are many varieties but “Muscari armeniacum” is, by far, the most impressive for mass displays.

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 “Mount Hood,” M. “Pink Sunrise” and even a fragrant yellow called “Golden Sunrise.”

Today, there are also pre-packaged combinations featuring muscari, such as “Wind and Tide,” an eye-popping blend of white “Thalia” daffodils and blue muscari. Muscari are hardy in all zones and will tolerate little or no water in summer.

This makes them ideal for plantings under large trees where moisture is often a problem. They prefer full sun or partial shade. These bulbs look very effective when mass planted by themselves or used as a contrast with other spring-blooming perennials, bulbs or flowering shrubs.

Muscari are long-lasting, have great weather tolerance, and they don’t look untidy as do so many other bulbs when they finish flowering.

Most gardeners plant and enjoy lots of the standard yellow, white, blue and striped crocus, but the sweetly scented species varieties are being overlooked. Crocus chrysanthus provide us with some of the most beautiful and interesting crocus colours.

They naturalize well and thrive in sun or light shade. They are most effective used in mass plantings in rockeries, borders, lawns and between stepping stones. You will find the species varieties are more free flowering.

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.

Scilla siberica seems to be the most popular because of its intense blue, three- to six-inch flower spikes. If, perchance, you are looking for old-fashioned English bluebells (Scilla nutans), they’re a lot easier to find now. They are very long-lasting and do well in partial shade.

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 as under-plantings with virtually every type of tulip and narcissus that blooms during their long flowering period. Their white colour tended to lift all the other colours, and when contrasted with the rich green lawns, they were sensational.

Anemones also come in blue and pink shades as well as a wonderful pre-packaged combo called appropriately “Diamonds and Sapphires,” a blend of white anemones and blue muscari that blooms for a long time. You will find these anemones most pleasing when you plant them under Japanese azaleas, dwarf rhododendrons and Japanese maples.

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.

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