The world of fall bulbs is vast and varied, yet my favorites are extremely narrow and exacting. My favorites are the naturalizers and tiny gems that peek out in the early throws of spring. I tend to choose and plant those bulbs that become heirlooms in the garden. My selections age with the garden over decades and the vast sweeps of these bulbs can add drama to the spring lawn or punctuate spaces in specific ecosystems in the garden.
While cultivars of tulips are lovely and showy, those hybridized blooms are only good for a season or two. I like the bulbs that naturalize and become springtime friends. Overall, I generally shy away from tulips. For me, the tulip would be precious in the early years of the craze. They feel somewhat cheap and disposable to me these days. I know that is a charged remark, but it is my truth. If I feel I need a tulip form for planting, I select species tulips. With the species tulips, one can get many seasons from the bulbs, and they are wilder looking in disposition. A favorite is the wood tulip, pictured below. These tulips spread naturally in a woodland garden and do not feel so engineered as to scream the melody of their beauty.
Tulipa sylvestris (wood tulip)
The Turkestan tulip and other such smaller species tulips add delicate color to the springtime beds while gradually naturalizing over the years.
Tulipa turkestanica (Turkestan tulip)
Tulipa clusiana (lady tulip)
More Bulb Friends
In areas with a dappled shade and moist feet, I always plant thousands of Leucojum aestivum. The tall green foliage helps support a riot of white bell-shaped blooms with green tipped tepals, adding much-needed dimension in the spring woodland garden.
Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake)
Native to Russia, Siberian squill or Scilla, form great blue swaths in early spring. Spreading like a prairie fire, these blue naturalizers are often seen across estate-sized lawns in the tawniest parts of town. For best results, I tend to order thousands for the initial planting. I want to see robust waves of blue after the first few years.
Puschkinia, or striped squill are native to the Caucacus and originated in Asia minor. Like Scilla, these baby blue jewels naturalize in those areas that have a harder time growing plants. The dry edges under a wood or shrub border are well suited for these treasures to spread and flourish.
The many cultivars of snow drops are all quite delightful and prolific naturalizers. Some gardeners even consider them a nuisance in the garden. I, as you have guessed, find them to be welcome friends every spring, as they grow in mass like ever creeping glaciers of white across the garden.
Camassia were introduced to me by a longtime gardening friend when I was quite young. He let me know he and his wife loved these bulbs and would order a few each fall to plant. I, each year, would question why he would only purchase a few bulbs. I think he defaulted to ordering them out of love for his wife, and habit. These days when I order Camassia, I order thousands in light blue and darker shades. I like to mix them in waves at a wooded edge. These loose growing, yet somewhat regal blooms always make me think of my friend. He has been gone for a few years, but the memories of his love for Camassia will dance along with me every year when I am ordering these bulbs for the gardens and projects.
It’s funny that I have the same shock of surprise and wonder when I stumble across patches of these dog-tooth lilies (or yellow trout lilies) in the spring garden. Quite hardy in our climate, these exotic little plants seem as if they should be growing in a glade in Borneo. I plant many of these in my personal gardens, desperately wanting them to naturalize. When they like their location, they thrive, and apparently, they only like one narrow space in our two-acre garden. I am grateful to these little exotic ambassadors that grace me with such surprise each year.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am a fan of the delicate and dainty Narcissus varieties. Far from loud and brassy, the ‘Sailboat’ cultivar is indeed delicate and somewhat miniature. I like planting them en masse, but in thoughtful places that will benefit and showcase their stature.
The Poeticus daffodil is an old variety dating back to 1831 officially, with some accounts reaching back even further. This dainty flower with an even smaller ringed cup never ceases to delight my eyes. I love planting vast quantities of this Narcissus, knowing the satisfaction they will bring when the winter winds are over. Not quite as loud as most of its cousins, the Poeticus variety is delicate and adds an air of refinement to one’s garden.
Thalia, the namesake of one of our Weimaraner’s, is most assuredly my favorite bulb to plant. These darlings of the Edwardian era were often planted in box parterres and woodland gardens. Their ability to reflect the light of the moon make them the stars in any moon garden. A conflagration of white beauty, these orchid-like blooms naturalize with ease and restraint. I like to take walks in the evening to visit these girls. I welcome them individually each spring as they unfurl into full bloom.
These are just a few of my favorite bulbs to plant in gardens. I would like to think, many decades from now some gardener will gaze out upon the many gardens that I have had my hand in and wonder who was the painter that used such bulbs on the many naturalized canvases. I would hope, if they listened closely enough, they could hear the flowers whisper my name as they emerge into the spring sunshine from their winter slumber.