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Choosing Bulbs for Shady Gardens

Flower bulbs that bloom in the spring are good choices for normally shady gardens. Many of these little bulbs flower so early in the year that, according to the calendar, it isn’t even spring yet. Shade beds get lots of sun at this time of year because trees and shrubs have not yet leafed out.

These bulbs are named in sequence by their Latin (botanical) names, making it easier to look them up in a catalog index when you want to order some for your garden:

  • Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda): Daisy-like flowers in blue, pink, or white. This bulb blooms at the same time that you’d put pansies and primroses in the garden. Additionally, the lower-growing Grecian windflower pairs nicely with smaller daffodils and the earlier-flowering, lower-growing tulips, adding a soft accent.

  • Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa luciliae): This bulb blooms while the weather is still a little nippy. It has charming blue flowers, several along a stem that’s only a few inches high. It’s obliging about increasing so give it room to romp. Try it under early-flowering shrubs or shrubs with long-lingering fruits from last autumn.

  • Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis):, This plant flowers before the snow is over. Yellow buttercup-like flowers on stems only a few inches high add early color to the woodland garden. This little treasure needs a place where it won’t be disturbed when dormant.

  • Dogtooth violet (Erythronium species): It looks like a miniature lily, with a nodding flower or two in white, yellow, or pink. The upswept petals give a graceful look to a plant that’s less than 1 foot (30 cm) tall. When planting, handle the dormant corms gently because they bruise easily. Give the dogtooth violet a special place to be admired, near a path where you can easily pause to appreciate it.

  • Guinea hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris): Each bulb has one or sometimes two nodding bell-like flowers clearly marked in purple and white, like a checker board. Either you like it or you don’t, but no one’s indifferent! Try fritillarias for something new and different, because it’s easier to grow than its uncommon appearance suggests.

  • Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis): This plant is arguably the most popular of the little, early blooming bulbs for shady places. Its fresh white flowers are a sure sign of winter’s end. Sturdy and easy to grow, snowdrops come in more varieties than you may suspect.

  • Wood hyacinth (Hyacinthoides hispanica): This vigorous plant is best suited to casual places where it has space to spread, or paired with shrubs that will stand up to its habit of extending its territory. It’s not as fragrant as its namesake, but spikes of blue, bell-like flowers make it all worthwhile.

  • Siberian squill (Scilla siberica): This excellent little bulb sports electric-blue flowers that follow hot on the heels of glory of the snow. The few little flower bells face downward on each stem. As bulbs multiply by seed and offset, they spread into pools of blue, irresistible in woodland, delightful in a lawn too thin and patchy to pass as a putting green.

  • Daffodils (Narcissus species and cultivars): Daffodils are easy to grow, great in gardens and vases alike, and untouched by pests such as deer, rabbits, chipmunks, or voles. You have your choice of tall stately ones, small charming ones, singles or doubles, and even a few that are fragrant. Daffodils and narcissuses are the same thing.

    Jonquil (which is what folks in the southeastern United States name every yellow narcissus) is more accurately used for a somewhat later-flowering group of usually fragrant daffodils that are mostly yellow (but earlier-flowering daffodils can also be yellow).

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