In the plant world they’re often called the minor bulbs because they’re easily overshadowed by the bold trumpets of hybridized daffodils and the plump bowls of tulip flowers. But in early spring, when these diminutive dots of color appear on a gray, late winter day, they’re a very welcome sight indeed.
The most common of these tiny bloomers are white snowdrops and gold and purple crocuses. Here are several other smaller bulbs to look for at this time of year. Most can be found tucked around campus. In the home garden these minor bulbs create early color, then, when the blooms fade, their dying foliage is easily hidden by emerging perennials.
Crocus tommasinianus: There’s nothing quite like a lawn brimming with a sea of these thin, lavender blooms on a sunny day in February. If the weather turns chilly or cloudy, they close up tight. Affectionately nicknamed Tommies, this very early crocus naturalizes freely and is a tough survivor, resisting most animal and insect pests. By the time you bring out the lawn mower for the first cut, they’ve all disappeared.
Scilla siberica, Siberian squill: Every spring the phone in the office rings with the question, ‘What are those blue flowers growing at the corner of College Avenue and Haverford Road?’ It’s Siberian squill, a wonderful intensely blue-flowered bulb that seeds freely and tolerates considerable shade. The spreading patch on the corner of campus always commands attention from drivers.
Chionodoxa forbesii, Glory-of-the-Snow: The upturned blue flowers with white centers and yellow anthers make this spring bulb easy to identify. It readily self-sows in full sun or deciduous shade. You can find it in bloom at the Bookstore steps entrance to the Whitehead Campus Center.
Puschkinia scilloides, Striped squill: This lesser-known bulb packs a dense cluster of up to 20 pale blue flowers toward the tip of its stalk. It should be planted more often.
Tulipa tarda and Tulipa turkestancia: These diminutive tulips show off with open, star-shaped flowers. Afterwards, their thin, bright green leaves easily die back, unlike the fat leaves of their larger tulip cousins that seem to yellow and hang on forever in the garden.
Muscari armeniacum and Muscari botryoides, Grape-hyacinth: Both plants have stacks of tiny blue or deep purple flowers. The difference between the species is when the foliage appears. The leaves of M. armenicaum emerge in the fall and hang on through late spring, so it can look messy in the garden. The leaves on M. botyoides wait until spring to grow.
Ornithogalum umbellatum, Star-of-Bethlehem: The star-shaped white flowers, often striped with green, give this perky and tough little plant its name. But beware; once planted, it will seed in everywhere and be near-impossible to control or remove.