"Minor" Bulbs

Interesting small bulbs that go beyond the familiar crocus & grape hyacinths

By Carol Papas ©2016
Penn State Master Gardener

Tulip, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs re-appear every fall in the aisles of nurseries and home improvement stores, reminding shoppers to make room for them in the garden. However, there are lesser-known bulbs, corms and tubers that can be planted in the fall. These little bulbs add charm and surprise to the late winter and spring garden.

“Minor” bulbs, as they are called, are inexpensive and easy to plant. They’re usually packaged in larger quantities and are planted only 3-4 inches deep. Like all bulbs, their most important cultural requirement is good drainage.

purple crocus

Several push through nearly frozen ground while snow is still flying. There are hundreds of species and cultivars of these bulbs, including the familiar crocus and grape hyacinths.

Long bloom period

By carefully selecting minor bulbs, gardeners can enjoy their delicate presence from late February through early May. All are deer-resistant and are listed by flowering time:

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are the first little bulbs to bloom. They tolerate full sun to shade and usually last several weeks in late winter and very early spring. Plant them under a canopy of trees with ferns and hostas. Bring a few indoors to study their amazing green and white coloration and pattern, especially the inner tepals, which look like a little bell in the center of the flower.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is a buttercup-like flower surround by a ruffled green “collar” or bracts. The tubers should be soaked overnight in tepid water and planted the next day. These happy little flowers can be tucked anywhere but look terrific in front of deep green boxwood or beneath the yellow catkins of Harry Lauder’s walking stick.

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) is a tough little bulb that blooms in a rare cobalt blue. It appears in late March and blooms for about a month. If you have early-blooming magnolias, plant a bunch of squill beneath them and enjoy the contrast of bright blue flowers and pink, white or yellow saucers on the trees.

•  Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa spp.) are similar to Siberian squills but their range of colors include lighter blues with a white eye. Try the pretty pink cultivar ‘Pink Giant’ in front of a planting of Helleborus orientalis with its range of plum colored flowers.

Spring starflower (Ipheion spp.) Its name perfectly describes the flower perched atop grass-like foliage. It blooms in late April through early May and looks great with daffodils such as ‘Thalia’ and ‘Hawera.’


Mass plantings

While the impact of a single flower can’t match a giant tulip, a group of 50 snowdrops will make you anticipate spring at the end of a long, cold winter. And, unlike tulips that last only a year or two, a planting of minor bulbs will get larger every year.

How to plant

When planting, dig a patch to the depth recommended by the grower. Make it an irregular shape and space the bulbs with a bit of variation in distance between each. The bulbs mentioned can be planted 10-20 per square foot. Cover them with the excavated soil.

Grape hyacinths
grape hyacinths

After they bloom

After blooming, it is important to allow the foliage to turn yellow and brown. Resist the temptation to cut it back when tidying the garden. The good news is that the foliage is small and it disappears quicker than larger bulbs.

Bulb Availability

If you’re buying from a local vendor, be sure the bulbs, corms or tubers are plump and firm. Mail-order sources stock more unusual varieties. The following vendors offer quality bulbs and have a long track record of good service: Brent & Becky’s, Dutch Gardens, John Scheepers and McClure & Zimmerman.


Flower bulb photos




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