How to grow snowdrops, dwarf iris, crocus, muscari and camassia

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Specialty bulbs, sometimes called minor bulbs, reflect the many other spring bulb treasures that can be planted in fall to herald the next growing season. Because many are diminutive, they are perfect for small urban gardens. This is not a complete list; I have not included hyacinths, for example, which are lovely in pots but to my eye seem ungainly in the garden. Nor have I included fritillaries, which in my experience do not find the conditions they like in the Mid Atlantic. I also commend anemones, scilla, winter aconites, snowflakes and glory-of-the-snow, but they are not discussed here.

One general piece of advice is to plant specialty bulbs generously. That means by the dozens if the space warrants. Per-bulb costs are low, so the more the merrier.

Snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii) are the earliest spring bulb flower to bloom. (Colorblends)

Snowdrops

The appearance of the first snowdrops, often poking through the snow, is a sure sign that spring is in the offing. But even if they flowered with the tulips, they would still be a treasured addition to the garden.

Typically, the snowdrop bloom consists of three outer petals — large, cupped and pendant — around three “inners” that resemble tiny daffodil cups. The inners display a green blotch in the shape of an inverted V.

Variations in flower markings and petal form have generated a passion for novel snowdrops, including those with yellow coloration. Closely observing these variations brings a deep appreciation of this late winter flower, but you don’t need a collection of novelty cultivars to draw great joy from these little plants.

Size

Flowers hang downward on arching stalks that reach six to eight inches high. The leaves arch but remain upright, allowing close spacing between bulbs — four inches or so.

Use and placement

Snowdrops are effective in woodland settings, either as individual clumps or drifts (but never in isolation). They work nicely in small beds close to home entrances to the home, and placing snowdrops behind retaining walls or on hillsides is an effective way to view their subtle beauty without having to bend down. On warm days, the outer petals spread horizontally to give a good view of the smaller inner petals and their markings.

Planting and care

Snowdrops prefer more moisture than other bulbs (but not wetness), and this can be achieved by incorporating organic matter into the soil. They are happier than most bulbs in wooded areas and are good choices for shade gardens (but avoid deep shade). Bulbs resent drying out, even in summer dormancy, and should be planted as soon as they are received in late summer and early fall. Once a clump is established and can be divided, lift the snowdrops after flowering but while they are still in leaf and carefully separate plants for immediate replanting.

Varieties

There are two species that are most commonly planted. The giant snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, blooms in February. Three or four weeks later, the common snowdrop, G. nivalis, blooms, though the timing of snowdrop season is unpredictable and based on the nature of the winter.

The giant snowdrop has a larger bloom and markedly broader leaf than the grasslike leaves of the common snowdrop. Mount Everest has large, pure white flowers and gray-green leaves and is considered a good naturalizer.

Among nivalis cultivars, Magnet is vigorous and tall with markedly pendant blooms; Sam Arnott has large, scented flowers on stout stems; and Flore Pleno is a double flowered form.

Dwarf iris

The iris comes in many forms. Most people are familiar with the bearded iris of mid- to late-spring, and may know the lanky bulbous Dutch iris of early spring. But the ground-hugging dwarf iris, sometimes called the rock garden iris, is among the earliest bulbs to appear in spring. In the right soil conditions it is reliably perennial and happy to spread. It is also beautiful in its petal patterns and saturated hues, including red-purple. Varieties derive from Iris reticulata and I. histrioides.

Size

Each flower rises four to six inches. Clump width depends on the number of bulbs planted together.

Use and placement

Dwarf iris can be tucked into nooks and crannies all over the garden, though they deserve to be placed where they will be seen every day in late winter. They are well-suited to gravel gardens and elevated rock and herb gardens.

Planting and care

Bulbs can be obtained in bulk for under 20 cents apiece, so dream big. Use a mattock to create a trench for mass planting. They need well drained soil — the wholesale addition of grit or gravel will help — and a sunny location. Keep them free of other early spring plants (such as daffodils) and excessive organic mulches.

Varieties

Katharine Hodgkin is sky blue with golden yellow blotches on the patterned lower petal. Carolina is a stronger blue, with narrow petals marked gold. Harmony is a violet-blue with a yellow line framed with white blotches. Pauline is a deep purple-violet with blue and white blotches.

Crocus

Crocuses are cheap, cheerful and offer another excuse to herald the spring with abandon, as long as the bulbs survive squirrel feasting right after planting.

Size

Blooms erupt directly from the bulb and reach four to six inches in height.

Use and placement

Crocus can be planted anywhere you might place smaller daffodils, botanical tulips or dwarf irises: in tight corners, on hillsides or under deciduous trees. Some can be used to create carpets in lawns before the turf grows.

Planting and care

In turf grass, early flowering crocus can flourish and spread, especially in fine-bladed lawns. But if you want to promote this carpet, it is important not to mow the lawn until the crocus leaves wither, a month or more after flowering. Squirrels are drawn to newly planted crocus bulbs. To prevent them from digging up the bulbs, you can plant bulbs deeply or place a deep layer of mulch or shredded leaves over the planted area. Another option is to peg netting over the area, and then mulch. You could try all three, if necessary.

Varieties

Crocus divide basically between spring and fall flowering varieties. We’re dealing here with spring bloomers. Among those, there are botanical types, which tend to be early and dainty, and hybrids, which are larger and showier and appear a couple of weeks later. When happy, species types will multiply and can spread by self-seeding over many years. The traditional example of this is Crocus tommasinianus, nicknamed “tommies,” which are slender and pale violet. They typically appear in early March, opening with the warmth and closing with the cold. Varieties of tommies include Barr’s Purple, a rich violet-purple; Roseus, pink purple with a striped effect when closed; and Ruby Giant, with petals flushed a dark red-purple.

The larger, showier hybrids are available in shades of yellow, a spectrum of purples, white and an array of striped versions. Striped Beauty has rich mauve stripes with a violet-purple base; Jeanne d’Arc is pure white with a showy golden orange pistil; and Pickwick is white with deep purple striping.

Muscari

Muscari — or grape hyacinth — produce clumps of grassy leaves in the fall as a prelude to blooming the following April. Each bloom is a pyramidal cluster of tightly arrayed florets, usually a vivid blue. En masse, they bring alive whole areas of the early spring garden.

Size

Blooms typically reach four to six inches in height. When content, bulbs will multiply.

Use and placement

Muscari are effective at the edges of woodlands or placed under a deciduous tree or in pathside borders, but they will grow feeble in areas that are too shady. They pair well with early spring companions such as epimedium, foam flowers and emerging hostas.

Planting and care

They prefer free-draining soil and full sun to partial shade. If the autumn months are dry, they benefit from an occasional watering. When content, clumps will multiply so leave a few inches between bulbs when planting. After a few seasons, they may become overcrowded and should be lifted, separated and replanted for continued flower vigor. Do this after the blooms fade.

Varieties

The azure-flowered species Muscari armeniacum is popular and cost-effective, with bulk orders bringing bulb prices below 20 cents in some catalogues. If you want a river of blue, this is the way to do it. Valerie Finnis is a pale lavender blue, Album is white, and Blue Spike is a large flowered double variety. Another species, M. latifolium, has conspicuously lighter bloom clusters at the top, which is otherwise a deep indigo-blue.

Camassia

Camassia is the closest of this company to being a native bulb, being indigenous to the West Coast. Camassias bloom in late April and May in the Mid-Atlantic, forming a bridge between tulips and alliums. They have large, radiating starlike bloom clusters that open sequentially from the base, usually in shades of blue, though white and pink versions are available.

Size

The flower spikes rise to between 14 and 36 inches, depending on variety.

Use and placement

They are valued for their showy blue flowers, which form vertical accents. They can also be used extravagantly to form whole ribbons of blooms in linear beds. In nature, they are found in sunny, moist meadows, and can be used with grasses and perennials with similar soil moisture requirements. They are not for dry sites.

As with alliums, they are deer- and rodent-resistant and make good cut flowers.

Planting and care

Camassias prefer moist soil — organically enriched beds are ideal for them to perennialize. They can be planted at the edge of ponds, but they will not survive in waterlogged sites.

Varieties

Gardeners turn to three species of camassia: Camassia cusickii, which grows to about 24 inches; C. leichtlinii, rising to 36 inches; and C. quamash, with spikes that reach 12 to 18 inches.

Zwanenburg is a cusickii variety with larger, deep blue flowers. Of leichtlinii varieties, Blue Danube has dark blue flowers and Caerulea offers a more vivid blue hue. Among quamash cultivars, Blue Melody has rich blue flowers and showy yellow margins to the leaves.

Lead illustration by Washington Post staff/Colorblends. Icon illustrations by Jeannie Phan.

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