by BRIAN MINTER
September 15, 2004
Over one hundred and sixteen million Dutch flower bulbs have now made their way into Canadian garden shops, chain stores, import warehouses and greenhouse coolers. As a matter of fact, Canada is the ninth largest Dutch bulb importing country in the world. I'm sure it would be no surprise if I were to tell you that tulips are the number one bulb we import. Way down in quantities but still important, are lilies, hyacinths, narcissus, iris, crocus, amaryllis, dahlias, freesias and anemones. The high numbers of some of these bulbs may seem rather oli to the home gardener, but many of these bulbs such as lilies, iris and freesias are grown-on by greenhouse operators for cut flower production.
It is becoming more apparent to me each year that we are overlooking some of the very finest bulbs, and they are right under our noses. Why do we always load up our gardens with tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, while ignoring other bulbs which are actually better investments?
A visit to Keukenhof, Holland's famous spring garden, opened my eyes to the use of minor bulbs. Muscari (grape hyacinths) were used very effectively as borders, underplantings and drifts of color under trees and shrubs. There are many varieties but 'Muscari armeniacum' is by far the most impressive. Muscari are hardy in all zones. They prefer full sun or partial shade and will tolerate little or no water in summer. This makes them ideal for plantings under large trees where moisture is often a problem. These bulbs look very effective when mass planted by themselves or used as a contrast with other spring blooming perennials, bulbs or flowering shrubs. Muscari are longlasting, have great weather tolerance, and they don't look unsightly as do so many other bulbs when they finish flowering.
Most gardeners plant and enjoy lots of the standard yellow, white, blue and striped crocuses, but the sweetly scented species varieties are being overlooked. Crocus chrysanthus provide us with some of the most beautiful and interesting crocus colors. The two-toned 'Lady Killer' is certainly my favourite, but there are others that are equally delightful. Crocuses naturalize well and thrive in sun or light shade. They are most effective in mass plantings used in rockeries, borders, lawns and between stepping stones. You will find the species varieties are far more free flowering.
The old fashioned bluebells that so many European folks ask for are actually scillas or squills. All of them flower in clusters on leafless stalks and have either bell-shaped or star-like flowers. I like them best planted in informal groupings among shrubs, deciduous trees or low-growing perennials. They are great in pots too, and scillas make lovely cut flowers for tiny bouquets. Scilla siberica seems to be the most popular because of its intense blue 3-6 inch flower spikes. If you can find it, Scilla tubergeniana is also popular because it blooms very early with the snowdrops. If you are looking for old fashioned English bluebells, (Scilla nutans) they're a lot easier to find now. They are very longlasting and do well in partial shade.
The real sleeper in all the minor bulbs is Anemone blanda. These look for all the world like miniature daisies, and I was absolutely in awe when I saw how they were being used in Keukenhof Gardens. The variety called 'White Splendour' was planted in massive borders and underplantings with virtually every type of tulip and narcissus that bloomed over their long flowering period. The white color tended to lift all the other colors, and when contrasted with the rich green lawns, they were sensational. Anemone blanda comes in many colours, but the new varieties 'Blue shades', 'Pink Star' and 'White Splendor' have lovely bright colors. The mixed varieties look great too. You will find these anemones most pleasing when you plant them under Japanese azaleas, dwarf rhododendrons, Japanese maples, and other dwarf broadleafed narcissus.