CO-Horts Blog

Friday, October 3, 2014

Looking Beyond Tulips for Spring-Flowering Bulbs

Posted by: Alison O’Connor, Larimer County Extension

I love tulips, daffodils and hyacinth as much as the next person, but sometimes it’s nice to see a little more “bling” in the spring garden. As an FYI, if you haven’t been shopping at your local garden center, it’s BULB SEASON! I will muster the energy to plant some spring-blooming bulbs in the ground, simply because it’s really exciting to see them poke their noses out and add color to the brown mulch, brown turf and dormant (brown) trees in the March landscape.

So if you’re looking to add a few bulbs this fall, consider the following:

Gladiator allium from 
Alliums (Allium sp.): Ok, alliums (AKA ornamental onions) aren’t uncommon, but did you realize how many shapes, sizes and colors they come in? The Giant Onion (Allium giganteum) has flowers the size of softballs and comes in shades of purple, pink and white. While each bulb can be pricey, buying in bulk generally saves you some money. The great thing about planting “show and tell” bulbs is that you don’t need to plant en masse for a dramatic effect--one or two signature bulbs will do the trick. If you want smaller alliums to plant in groupings, consider species like A. sphaerocephalon or A. aflatunense.

Checkered lily
(photo from Missouri Botanic Garden)
Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris): Have you ever seen a flower that has a checkered pattern? Seriously, really and truly checkered. I first learned about checkered lilies during my herbaceous plant class at Iowa State and immediately fell in love with this minor bulb. From far away, the plant looks like a drooping tulip, but up close, these small darlings have the most unique pattern. Colors range from deep purple to lavender to white. For the biggest impact, plant en masse with 5-10 bulbs per square foot.

Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperalis): This is another species of fritillary, though much larger and makes a big statement with just one or two bulbs. Did I mention that fritillaries have a skunky smell—both the bulb and flower? While this may turn you off, it’s also important to know that deer and rodents tend to leave these bulbs alone once planted. The crown imperial is a fabulous bulb that produces a leafy stalk 3-4’ tall where a “crown” of bell-shaped flowers droop down. Flowers come in yellow, orange or red. I have one planted in my front yard and I’m always a bit taken aback when I’m doing spring chores and catch a whiff of the skunky flowers, but the beauty of this bulb makes up for that.
Crown imperial
(photo from
(photo from Michigan State University)
Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis): The teeny tiny snowdrop is about the cutest minor bulb in the world. Growing just 3-4” tall (there are some cultivars that are larger) this bulb is truly the first sign of
spring since it’s one of the earliest to bloom. Snowdrops have been known to bloom in snow and also naturalize in the landscape. Each white flower has a dab of green on the three inner tepals, which are shorter than the longer, outer tepals. Plant up to 10 bulbs per square foot for maximum impact.

Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum): Don’t let the common name fool you, since this minor bulb blooms from April to May (but it does bloom later than spring snowflake, L. vernum). The snowflake bulbs look very similar to snowdrops, but they have a green dot on each of the tepals, which are equal in length. The nodding flower is bell-shaped and sits on top of a leafless flower stalk (scape). Plant en masse for the greatest effect with at least 10 bulbs per square foot.
(photo from Erin Mahaney, University of California)
And there are plenty of unique-looking tulips, daffodils, hyacinth and crocus available as well. Some have frilly flowers; others are two-toned. If you’re shopping for bulbs, keep the following in mind:

  1. If you have the option, pick out individual bulbs to plant. Select ones that are large, firm and free from disease or rot. Be sure to label your bags or pick up the plant tags for each species.
  2. Plant bulbs before cold weather sets in. In general, it’s best to plant spring-blooming bulbs by mid-October. If planted too late, it may affect bloom and establishment.
  3. Plant bulbs with the roots down and the pointy tip up. Not sure what end is down? Then plant the bulb on its side—it will figure it out. Bulbs should be planted 3-4 times deep as the length of the bulb. For example, if a bulb is 2” long, it should be planted 6-8” deep.
  4. Unless you’re planting en masse, follow the spacing suggested on the plant tag. If planting for optimal effect, spacing can be greatly reduced.
  5. Water your bulbs well after planting and mulch. The need for bulb fertilizer seems to be debated, but if your soil lacks nutrients, adding fertilizer won’t hurt.
  6. Mulch over the tops of the bulbs with a 2-4” layer of organic mulch.
Do you have a specific bulb species or cultivar that you love? Leave us a message…and be sure to include your approximate location (whether in Colorado or the great beyond).


  1. I'm looking forward to spring! Those having buffalograss lawns should consider planting crocus and snowdrops to brighten up their dormant lawns.

  2. I would plant all of those bulbs as long as the rabbits don't eat them! I think most of your list (not sure about snowflake) are not eaten by rabbits and deer. If anyone knows otherwise, do tell.

  3. If I had to restrict myself to just two bulbs, hands down my choice for the easiest bulbs with oomph are Glory of the Snow Chionodoxa (planting close enough together, it acts as a ground cover and after 15 years even comes up through Vinca) and Allium christophii (albopilosum?) Star of Christopher/Persia, which looks almost like it went nuclear! The older varieties of Chionodoxa seed thenselves in a very tidy manor, so they keep on going and going. Allium christophii seems less of a thug (re-seeding) in my garden than Alllium afflatunense (which I also welcome because it blooms earlier).

  4. Yes, all the bulbs mentioned in the blog are not favorites of deer or rodents.
    Glory of the Snow is fabulous...great one to consider planting!

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