Don’t get me wrong, I like tulips and daffodils. Their cheery faces usher in spring with a rush of color and enthusiasm, and like most gardeners, I welcome them with open arms. But, I also like to include more unusual flower bulbs in my garden, too; ones that you don’t find on every corner. These exceptional beauties herald spring in a very different way than a riot of bright yellow daffodils. Instead, these unique spring-flowering bulbs offer their uncommon beauty in a way that’s both subtle and curious.
Today, I’d like to introduce you to several of the unusual flower bulbs that call my garden home. All of them are fully hardy here in my Pennsylvania landscape and take quite nicely to average garden soil. Best planted in the fall, these unusual flower bulbs settle in for a long winter’s nap before popping up out of the soil the following spring to produce their gorgeous blooms. Most of these bulbs have lived in my garden for many years, and every year their colonies grow, with each bulb producing off-sets that help the plants spread.
How to plant flower bulbs
Before we get to the introductions, I’d like to quickly share the technique I use to plant all of my spring-blooming bulbs. I plant hundreds of bulbs every fall, and I used to do it by hand, digging each individual hole with a trowel before dropping the bulb into it. But I’ve since come to appreciate the power and prowess of using a bulb auger to do the job.
These cool tools are basically giant drill bits that attach to your corded or cordless power drill. There are long-shafted bulb augers you can use from a standing position and short-shafted bulb augers meant to be used at ground level. I’ve used (and loved!) both types and highly recommend them. I used to be able to plant about 50 bulbs in two hours by hand, but with a bulb auger, I can plant over 200 bulbs in about an hour, especially in areas where the soil is relatively soft.
Here’s a useful video of how a bulb auger works, if you’d like to see one in action.
There are also a few other bulb-planting tools that I’ve found quite useful over the years, if you don’t have a drill or aren’t interested in hauling one outdoors every autumn. This cool stand-up bulb planter works really well, as does this all-steel bulb planter. Both are stepped down into the soil and then pulled back out again to remove a core of earth. The bulb is then dropped into the waiting hole, and as you create the next hole, the core of soil is popped out of the top of the tool head. It can then be used to fill in the empty bulb hole. It’s a bit more work than using an auger, but certainly requires less effort than hand-digging each and every bulb hole.
How deep to plant flower bulbs
As a general rule of thumb, no matter the size of the bulb you’re planting and whether they’re unusual flower bulbs or common ones, the perfect hole depth for each different bulb is about two-and-a-half times as deep as the bulb is tall. So for a two-inch-tall tulip bulb, the proper hole depth is about five inches deep. Don’t get too caught up in this rule, though, because bulbs are pretty flexible and the planting depth doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect for them to thrive.
My favorite unusual flower bulbs
Now, onto the fun part! Here are the unusual flower bulbs I think you’ll enjoy adding to your garden.
Standing just six to ten inches tall, Fritillary meleagris, or the checkered lily, may not be big, but it sure is gorgeous. The checkered petals on nodding flowers look terrific along walkways and on top of retaining walls where they can be seen close-up. They’re a deer-resistant bulb that the chipmunks don’t seem to bother either. This European native blooms from March until early May, and I absolutely adore it. You can find this great bulb for sale here.
On the opposite end of the height spectrum from checkered lilies are another type of fritillary, Fritillary imperialis, or the crown imperial. These stunning and unusual flower bulbs reach a height of up to two feet! The hollow bulbs are rodent resistant and smell a bit skunky. But, once they’re in the ground, you’ll forget all about the bulb’s odor only to focus on the tropical good looks of this striking bulb flower. They sell many different varieties of crown imperial here.
If you like to include North American native plants in your garden, then Camassia quamash is the bulb for you! Commonly called blue camas or quamash, these unusual flower bulbs do very well in sunny areas with well-drained, humus-rich soil, and they spread easily via seeds. Their tall, blue spikes of flowers look gorgeous in the spring and reach a height of fifteen to twenty inches tall. The bulbs were once used as a food source among native peoples. If you want to add some Camassia bulbs to your landscape, they have them here.
These unusual flower bulbs are also known as glory-of-the-snow, and the name is well deserved. Though Chionodoxa lucilliae is a native of the Mediterranean region, it does very well in my garden, producing scores of brilliant blue flowers early every spring, often as the last bit of snow is melting. With a height of just three to five inches, this diminutive bulb knocks your socks off not with its size, but rather with its color and stalwart nature. There’s a pink cultivar, called ‘Violet Beauty’, that I adore almost as much as the blue. You’ll find glory-of-the-snow bulbs for sale here.
Winter aconite ushers in spring like none of the other unusual flower bulbs I mention here. The yellow burst of color from Eranthis hyemalis appears very early, often in February, and is always the first thing blooming in my garden every year. Though winter aconite flowers are only three or four inches high, they make me giddy every time I spot their sunny yellow. A member of the buttercup family, this plant is deer resistant and thrives under a great deal of neglect (ask me, I know!). This is a great source for winter aconite bulbs, if you want to plant some, too.
Another North American native bulb well-worth growing, the trout lily, Erythronium americium, bears nodding yellow blossoms with recurved petals. Standing ten to twelve inches tall, each flower stalk produces multiple flowers. The thick, glossy green leaves are lovely even when the plant isn’t in bloom. Trout lilies bloom in April in my garden, and they definitely do best in dense to moderate shade. In late spring, after flowering ends, the foliage dies back and the plant shifts into dormancy. But don’t let that stop you from growing these unusual flower bulbs because the springtime show is spectacular. Here’s my favorite source for this special little bulb.
Spanish bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica, are such lovely harbingers of spring. Their straight stems of nodding, bell-shaped flowers stand above strap-like foliage for three to four weeks in the early spring. These unusual flower bulbs spread quickly, forming nice-sized clumps and colonies after just a few years time. This plant does best in woodland or shaded garden areas with soil rich in organic matter, though it will also grow in average garden soil without trouble. You can find top-sized bulbs for your own garden here.
The snowflake flower, Leucojum aestivum, always surprises me. Unlike snowdrops (Galanthus sp.), these guys don’t come into flower until late spring. Their pendulous, skirt-like flowers bloom on foot-tall stalks, and they make a lovely accompaniment to late tulips and bleeding hearts. They’re so graceful looking and will naturalize quickly, especially if the bulbs are planted in drifts. Here’s an inexpensive source for this lovely little bulb.
Of all the many unusual flower bulbs out there, Pushkinia, or striped squill, are definitely near the top of my list. And, the bees love them almost as much as I do! Their five-inch-tall spikes of flowers appear in early spring, and each white petal is centered with a stripe of blue. That blue stripe serves as a runway for pollinators who take advantage of the early source of nectar and pollen. A spring-flowering bulb that’s best appreciated close-up, I recommend planting it at the edge of woodland garden, walkways, and stepping stone paths. I got my Puschkinia bulbs from here.
Yes, I love the giant blossoms of globe allium and the small, inch-wide flowers of caeruleum blue allium just like everyone else, but the drumstick allium (Allium sphaerocephalon) is my hands-down favorite. When the two-foot-tall, straight stalks float above the garden in late spring and early summer, they always catch my eye. The ball-shaped flower clusters are deep purple on top and sometimes have a greenish base that disappears as the flowers age. Plus, they’re deer and chipmunk proof, a must for my front garden. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is a great place to source many different types of alliums, including this one.
Hardy cyclamen are always a surprise treat for gardeners, because unlike these other unusual flower bulbs, Cyclamen cilicicum blooms in the late summer and fall, rather than in the spring. Yep, that’s right: hardy cyclamen strut their stuff late in the season, a time that most bulb growers ignore. Hardy to USDA Zone 5, hardy cyclamen thrive in most garden areas with average soil. Though they’re fairly slow growing, with a bit of patience and time, they’ll form a lovely colony. Their variegated leaves and pink, recurved flowers are deer resistant, too. You can purchase this fun yet striking bulb plant here.
I hope you enjoyed this list of some of my favorite unusual flower bulbs and that you find the time to tuck some into your garden this fall. Come spring, I guarantee you’ll be pleased with your efforts!
What spring-flowering bulbs are your favorites? Tell us about them in the comment section below.