Don’t get me wrong, I love tulips and daffodils. Their cheerful faces ring in spring with a touch of color and enthusiasm, and like most gardeners, I greet them with open arms. But I also like to include more unusual bulbs in my garden; ones that you won’t find on every corner. These extraordinary beauties announce spring quite differently than a riot of bright yellow daffodils. Instead, these unique spring-blooming bulbs offer their unusual beauty in a subtle and curious way.
Today I want to introduce you to some of the unusual flower bulbs that inhabit my garden. All of them are completely hardy here in my Pennsylvania countryside and take pretty well an average garden soil. Best planted in autumn, these unusual bulbs settle for a long hibernation before coming out of the ground next spring to produce their magnificent flowers. Most of these bulbs have lived in my garden for many years, and every year their colonies grow, with each bulb producing lags that help the plants spread.
How to plant flower bulbs
Before coming to the presentations, I want to quickly share the technique with which I planted all my spring-flowering bulbs. I planted hundreds of bulbs every fall, and I did it by hand, digging every single hole with a trowel before dripping the onion into it. But since then I have come to appreciate the power and skills of using a bulb snail to get the job done.
These cool tools are basically giant drills that attach to your wired or cordless drill. There are long-tree snails that you can use while standing, and short-tree snails that are designed for use at ground level. I used (and liked it!) both types and strongly recommend them. I was able to plant about 50 bulbs by hand in two hours, but with a snail I can plant more than 200 bulbs in about an hour, especially in areas where the soil is relatively soft.
There are also a few other onion planting tools that I’ve found very useful over the years if you don’t have a drill or aren’t interested in wearing one outdoors every fall. This stand-up lamp planter works very well, just like this all-steel lamp planter. Both went into the ground, then removed to remove an earth core. The bulb is then placed in the waiting hole, and when you create the next hole, the earth core is taken out from the top of the tool head. It can then be used to fill the hole of the empty bulb. It’s a bit more work than with a snail, but certainly requires less effort than digging each pear hole by hand.
How to plant deep bulbs
In general, it does not matter how large the bulb you plant and whether it is unusual or ordinary flower bulbs, the perfect hole depth for each individual bulb is about two and a half times the height of the bulb. So, for a tulip bulb two inches high, the correct hole depth is about five inches deep. However, do not get too infected by this rule, because the bulbs are very flexible, and the depth of planting does not have to be absolutely perfect for them to thrive.
My favorite unusual flower bulbs
Now to the fun part! Here are the unusual flower bulbs that I think you’ll want to add to your garden.
Only six to ten inches tall, Fritillary meleagris, or checkered lily, may not be tall, but it’s gorgeous. The checkered petals on the nodding flowers look good along the aisles and over retaining walls where they can be seen in close-up. It is a deer-resistant onion, which chipmunks also do not seem to bother. This native European plant blooms from March to early May,and I absolutely love it. You can find this great light bulb for sale here.
At the opposite end of the height spectrum of checkered lilies is another type of fritillary, fritillary imperialis or imperial crown. These beautiful and unusual flower bulbs reach a height of up to two feet! The hollow bulbs are resistant to rodents and smell a little skunky. But once in the ground, you will forget all about the fragrance of the onion to focus on the tropical beauty of this striking onion flower. They sell many different colors of crown imperial, including the one you will find here.
If you like to include native plants from North America in your garden, then Camassia quamash is the right bulb for you! These unusual flower bulbs, commonly called blue camas or quamash, cope very well in sunny areas with well-drained, humus-rich soil and can easily spread over seeds. Their large cobs of blue flowers are beautiful in spring, reaching a height of fifteen to twenty inches. The onions were formerly used as a food source among the indigenous peoples. If you want to add camassia onions to your landscape, you have it here.
These unusual flower bulbs are also known as snow glory, and the name is well deserved. Although Chionodoxa lucilliae is native to the Mediterranean, my garden is doing very well, producing dozens of bright blue flowers at the beginning of each spring, often when the last snow melts. With a height of only three to five inches, this little bulb hits your socks not with its size, but with its color and faithful nature. There is a pink variety called ‘Violet Beauty’ that I love almost as much as blue. Glory-of-the-snow light bulbs for sale can be found here.
The winter aconite heralds spring like none of the other unusual bulbs I mention here. The yellow sheen of Eranthis hyemalis appears very early, often in February, and is always the first thing that blooms in my garden every year. Although the winter aconite flowers are only three or four inches tall, they give me vertigo every time I see their sunny yellow. As a member of the family of buttercups, this plant resists deer and grows under great carelessness (ask me, I know!). It is a good source of winter aconite bulbs if you also want to plant.
Another native North American bulb worth cultivating, the trout lily, Erythronium americium, bears yellow, nodding flowers with curved petals. With a height of ten to twelve inches, each flower stalk produces several flowers. The thick, shiny green leaves are beautiful, even if the plant does not bloom. Trout lilies bloom in my garden in April, and they are certainly better in dense to moderate shade. At the end of spring, after the end of flowering, the foliage dies, and the plant goes into a state of rest. But do not let this stop you from growing these unusual bulbs, because the spring show is spectacular. Here is a source for this special little light bulb.
The Spanish hyacinths, hyacinthoides hispanica, are such beautiful harbingers of spring. Their straight bell-shaped flower stalks stand above a ribbon-shaped foliage for three to four weeks in early spring. These unusual bulbs quickly spread and after only a few years form lumps and colonies of beautiful size. This plant comes best in wooded areas or shady gardens with a soil rich in organic matter, although it grows without problems even in an average garden soil. You can find larger bulbs for your own garden here.
The snowflake flower, Leucojum aestivum, always surprises me. Unlike snowdrops (Galanthus sp.), these species bloom only in after spring. Their hanging flowers in the form of a skirt bloom on high stems, and they beautifully accompany after tulips and bleeding hearts. They are so graceful and quickly become naturalized, especially if the bulbs are planted in galleries. Here’s a source for this pretty little light bulb.
Of all the many unusual bulbs, the pushkinia, or striped squill, is certainly near the top of my list. And the bees love her almost as much as I do! Her five-inch-high flower buds appear in early spring, and each white petal is centered with a blue stripe. This blue stripe serves as a trail for pollinators who benefit from the early source of nectar and pollen. A spring-flowering bulb, which is best appreciated in close-up, I recommend planting it on the edge of the wooded garden, sidewalks and jumping paths. I got my pushkinia onions from here.
Yes, I love the huge flowers of Globe Allium and the small flowers of Caeruleum Blue Allium like all the others, but the pestle Allium (Allium Sphaerocephalon) is my favorite. When the two-foot-tall straight stems float above the garden in after spring and early summer, they always catch my eye. The spherical flower clusters are dark purple on top and sometimes have a greenish base that disappears with the age of the flowers. Plus, they’re safe for deer and chipmunks, a must for my front yard. Here is a great place to get Alliums.