Minor bulbs are right under our noses

Brian Minter owns and operates Minter Gardens just outside of Chilliwack

Anemone blanda comes in many colours

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

In fact, 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 them.

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, and they are right under our noses.

We always plant tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, while ignoring 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 effectively as borders, underplantings and as drifts of color under trees and shrubs.  Many varieties were incorporated into the gardens, but ‘Muscari armeniacum’ was, by far, the most impressive for mass displays.

Smaller pockets shone with fabulous long lasting perennial varieties like the white M. album, the soft blue ‘Valerie Finnis’, the bi-color M. latifolium, the feathery M. comosum ‘Plumosum’ and the new pink one, ‘Pink Sunrise’.

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 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 messy 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 colors. 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.

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, you know, 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 you can find it, Scilla tubergeniana is also popular because it blooms very early with the snowdrops. If, by chance, 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 underplantings with virtually every type of tulip and narcissus that blooms during their long flowering period. Their white color tended to lift all the other colors, and when contrasted with the rich green lawns, they were sensational.

Anemone blanda comes in many colours, but the new varieties ‘Blue Shades’, ‘Pink Star’ and ‘White Splendor’ have lovely bright colors. The mixed varieties look great too.  You will find these anemones most pleasing when you plant them under Japanese azaleas, dwarf rhododendrons and Japanese maples.

There are many other 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.

Brian Minter owns and operates Minter Gardens just outside of Chilliwack.

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