The time is right to plant these unusual bulbs for added color in your garden.
SNOWDROPS, CROCUS, daffodils and tulips — pretty much in that order — blast us with color and fragrance just when we crave it most. Their sequence of bloom reassures us that spring is on its way.
And yet … there are so many more possibilities in the vast family of bulbous plants besides these most-familiar ones. And right now, when the herbaceous layer of the garden is dying away to open up space for planting, and the ground is not yet frozen, is when bulbs should be tucked deeply down into the soil. They are so worth the trouble. Many bulbs are deer-resistant. All are drought-tolerant, as they grow and bloom while there is still plenty of rain, then go dormant in summer. Most bulbs are perennial, naturalizing to form colonies.
• Consider a couple of Northwest native bulbs to feed pollinators early in the season. Camassia leichtlinii has starry flowers on tall spikes in May. It’s their color that enchants, a blue so pure that 19th-century explorer Meriwether Lewis wrote, “At a short distance, the colour resembles lakes of bright clear water.” Which gives you a clue how best to plant camas lilies: in big bunches to create ribbons and puddles of striking blue. They are especially adaptable bulbs, tolerating heavy clay soil and partial shade.
• Equally appealing is our native woodlander, called trout lily or fawn lily. The species Erythronium revolutum is small, with rose-pink, lily-like flowers and mottled leaves. The cultivar ‘Pagoda’ has yellow flowers. Both types are April bloomers that look delicate but are quite tough and persistent, slowly forming large colonies when planted in the rich soil and dappled shade they prefer.
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• No one would mistake tall, showy Fritillaria imperialis for a native plant. This must be the most flagrantly attention-seeking of all spring bulbs, with bell-shaped blooms in yellow or brilliant orange. Atop the flowers is a ruff of leaves that makes the plant look more like a parrot than a flower. Looking unexpected amid all the spring pastels, crown imperials warm up the garden at Easter time. The checkered or snake’s-head lily (Fritillaria meleagris) is a quieter cousin that grows from thumbnail-size bulbs that are easy to tuck into shady, dampish corners of the garden. The foliage is wispy, and the flowers in shades from cream to plum are so transparent that when the light shines through them, the checkered pattern on the petals creates a stained-glass effect.
• And how about Naked Ladies, also known as belladonna lilies (Amaryllis belladonna)? These fall bloomers are a kind of amaryllis, but not the flower-indoors-at-Christmas type, which are, botanically speaking, a different genus altogether (Hippeastrum). Naked Ladies are so-called because these hardy bulbs bloom pink, fragrant, lily-like flowers on bare stems after the leaves die down in late summer. Being from South Africa, these showstoppers enjoy the hottest, driest spot you can find to plant them. They flower for a long time and make great cut flowers, and butterflies love them.
• You might be familiar with ornamental onions, but check out the unusually shaped Allium schubertii, which looks more like a firework than flora. The flower heads are a full 12 to 15 inches in diameter, a botanical explosion of tiny lavender-pink flowers growing along wavy filaments of various lengths. Like many of these less-common bulbs, you have to see this one to believe it.