Green Scene

A rainbow of bulbs to brighten the spring garden

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Washington area is glorious in springtime, not only because of its famous cherry blossoms, but also because of an abundance of flowering bulbs.

Spring steals the show, of course. But daffodils, tulips, fritillarias, hyacinths, trilliums, snowdrops, winter aconites, scillas, crocuses and grape hyacinths are only the beginning of the parade of blooming bulbs. Different varieties flower almost year-round.

The term "bulb" generally refers to a variety of bulbous-rooted plants with specialized thick or fleshy underground plant growth used for storing food. These can be corms, rhizomes, tubers or bulbs.

But botanically, true bulbs consist of a leaf or flower bud encased in food storage layers called scales. Many spring-blooming flowers, including daffodils and tulips, are true bulbs and are planted in the fall.

Spring, not fall, is perfect for planting many summer- and fall-blooming bulbs. Plant them as soon as the chance of frost is past -- May 1 in the Washington region.

Try some Chinese ground orchids, blackberry lilies, canna lilies, elephant ears, lilies of the valley, crocosmias, hardy cyclamens, dahlias, summer hyacinths, gladioluses, day lilies, irises, or true lilies for a coordination of flowers through summer into fall.

Here are some bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers to plant this spring:

Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata): Early spring is the time to plant this "terrestrial" (grown in the ground) orchid. By late spring, lavender or white flowers open on two-foot-tall scapes and bloom for about two weeks. In fall, mulch with a few inches of compost for winter protection. Install in a moist, well-drained area with full eastern sun and hot afternoon shade using lots of organic material. Grow in an undisturbed area to form a colony.

Blackberry lily (Belamcanda chinensis): Drought- and heat-tolerant with few pests, this Asian member of the iris family should be planted in spring just below the soil's surface. The rhizomatous root will develop strap-shaped, iris-like leaves, blooming in summer on two- to three-foot tall stems with yellow, orange and purple flowers. Suitable for any type of soil, they should be kept moist during the growing season.

Canna lily: Cannas are available in a range of hybrids, with blooms whose colors include rose, pink, yellow, red and orange. They can grow three to six feet tall. Their greatest asset is that they bloom all summer if they are deadheaded. Plant about one inch deep in well-drained soil rich in organic material. They grow best in protected sites with full sun. In fall, lay a few inches of mulch over the roots for winter protection or dig them up and store them in a cool, dry place.

Elephant ear (Calocasia esculenta): Grown ornamentally for its huge leaves, this tuber is used to make poi, a popular food in the plant's native East Indies and tropical Asia. It loves water and will grow in continually wet sites that are well drained and high in organic content in sun or shade. Plant them three feet apart and keep them moist. Often planted as an annual, tubers can be dug in fall and replanted in the spring.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis): Lily of the valley will colonize into a spring-flowering, low-growing ground cover. This member of the lily family loves cold and needs partial shade to thrive. Warmth will make the rhizome sprout, so plant them as soon as possible. Install one inch deep in rich soil. Then, do not disturb. Note that all parts of this plant are poisonous. This exceptionally fragrant flowering plant should be planted out of children's reach.

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