The Joy of Snowmelt Bulbs

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The very first spring crocuses sprouting in my otherwise snow-covered yard on April 16th!

A lot of people find it hard to believe that there snow is still snow where I live (Quebec City, Canada). And many of you think that snow until the middle of April would be reason enough to move. But you would be wrong. In fact, I get to see a sight few North Americans have ever seen: the flowering of snowmelt bulbs.

Snowmelt bulbs are normally found in the mountains of Europe. Their characteristic is that they start bloom when there still snow nearby. In fact, they sometimes bloom right through the snow. As I speak, the snow banks in my yard are melting back towards the shadier spots, and as they retreat, flowers spring up. Not a few weeks later, or a few days later, but the same day, literally an hour or so after the snow melts. It’s as if the flowers were pushing the snow back, forcing it to retreat.

How is that even possible? How can you go from ice to bloom in just minutes? The amazing fact is that these small bulbs actually grow under the snow. No, I’m not exaggerating. They actually start to sprout under the snow and ice at the end of the winter. So when the snow does melt, their growing point is exposed and they’re immediately ready to bloom.

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Crocus tommasinianus

You can grow snowmelt bulbs just about anywhere that has cold winters, zones 2 or 3 to 8. And they’re usually the first flowers to bloom anywhere you plant them, blooming as early as January in milder climates. But in most climates, they don’t bloom at snowmelt, they bloom a few weeks later. They’ll only bloom at snowmelt in very special climates, like mine, where snow is deep and takes a long time to melt away. This is the case where they grow wild in the mountains of Europe and Asia, and also in the snowiest parts of North America. And it’s not the total amount of snow that counts, it’s how long it takes to melt. Typically here the snow doesn’t melt away until late March or early April, sometimes not until May. And snowmelt bulbs are entirely ready t o bloom by then.

The Best Snowmelt Bulbs

There are essentially four snowmelt bulbs: snowdrops, winter aconites, botanical crocuses and reticulated irises.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis and others)

Snowdrops

Galanthus nivalis

Snowdrops are the best known snowmelt bulbs… and their name even tells you they bloom while there is snow on the ground. Each bulb produces a single flower stem from 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) high, each bearing a single hanging white flower with a small green-marked crown in the center. Snowdrop flowers may last only a week if the weather suddenly turns hot, but I’ve seen them last a month when the spring was very cold. They clump up nicely over the years, looking better and better over the decades. Zone 2 to 8.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

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Eranthis hyemalis

This is the least well known snowmelt bulb, but also the most intriguing. You see, it actually melts the snow itself. Yes, the bulb gives off heat as it starts to grow, often creating an effect of a carpet of white dotted here and there with yellow blooms. It’s a very small plant and bears only a single stem coiffed with a collar of green foliage and one bright yellow flower. If the bloom reminds you of of a buttercup (Ranunculus acres), you’re right. The two are the buttercup family: the Ranunculaceae. Zone 4.

Botanical Crocuses (Crocus spp.)

There are actually quite a number of snowmelt crocuses, but only a few are commonly grown. Here are the most common ones, roughly in order of flowering, from earliest to last… although that may only a case of a couple of hours difference!

Golden Bunch Crocus (C. ancyrensis): produces a dense cluster of small, bright yellow flowers. You can tell it from the golden crocus (see below) by its pure yellow color. Zone 4 (3 under snow cover).

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Crocus sieberi sublimis ‘Tricolor’ growing in my lawn.

Tricolor Crocus (C. sieberi sublimis ‘Tricolor’): each flower really does show 3 colors! The flower is bluish purple with a broad orange throat and, between the two colors, a distinct band of white. Zone 4.

Tommie Crocus (C. tommasinianus) larger flowers than the other snowmelt crocuses and the only one that spreads readily in the garden, self-sowing gleefully when it is happy… and I’m certainly not the person who’ll try to stop it. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t possibly have too many crocuses! The base flower color is lavender with a darker edge, but there are a several common cultivars in various shades of violet end purple. Zone 3.

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Mixed Crocus chrysanthus in a lawn.

Golden Crocus (C. chrysanthus): the species has yellow flowers streaked with brown on the outside, but there are many cultivars of different shades of yellow, purple or white flowers, most showing purple or brown stripes on the outside. Zone 3.

All these snowmelt crocuses bloom about a week earlier than the much more popular Dutch crocus (C. vernus) which has larger flowers.

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Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Reticulated Iris (Iris reticulata and its hybrids and relatives): The flowers are huge for such a short plant and and actually very typical of an iris: you really couldn’t mistake it for anything else. They come in various shades of purple, purple and white. Of this group, the most spectacular and earliest is I. ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ with flowers best described as turquoise: what a stunning plant and oh so easy to grow! Zone 4.

The “Après Snow” Bulbs

There are other bulbs that bloom just a little later then the snowmelt bulbs (puschkinias, Greek anemones, glories of the snow, bulbocodiums, some of the earliest narcissus, etc.) and I strongly recommend planting some of them as well. But they only bloom once all snow is gone and therefore are not, according to my definition at least, snowmelt bulbs,

Mark Your Agenda!

20150518HOn of the unfortunate facts of gardening life is that when plants are at their most beautiful is usually not the best time to plant them. And early spring flowering bulbs need to be planted a good 5 to 7 months from now, in the autumn. So while you may have spring blooms on your mind right now, you’re likely to have forgotten all about them by fall. That’s where an electronic agenda comes in handy.

Who doesn’t have an electronic agenda today? On your smart phone, your tablet, your computer, etc. So, before you even finish reading this paragraph, write down “plant snowmelt bulbs” on your agenda somewhere in mid-September. If not, you’ll almost certainly forget to plant them and so will miss the very first flowers of spring. If that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is!

Of course, while you’re at it, you can plant a whole range of other spring-blooming bulbs at that same season: tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, etc. With a careful choice of snowmelt bulbs, early bulbs, mid-season bulbs and late bulbs, you’ll gain a good 2 months of bloom. Just make sure to include a few of the earliest bulbs to your plant list for those ultra-early blooms.

Growing Snowmelt Bulbs

Honestly, is there anything easier? Just plant the bulbs at a depth equal to three times the bulb’s height from mid- to late September. Try not to be later than that, as some of these very small bulbs, and especially winter aconites, tend to dry out and die if they’re aren’t planted fairly rapidly. You can plant them in a flower bed or a rock garden, remembering they need full to half sun… spring sun, that is! If the spot will be shaded later by overhanging foliage, that’s of no importance, as these bulbs will be dormant by then. Also, well-drained soil is a must. Unlike tulips, small spring bulbs really don’t need much in the way of fertilizer and will come back annually for decades. You can also naturalize them in a lawn (that’s what I do at my place). Simply lift the sod, place the bulbs in the hole and put the sod back in its place. And the last step when you water anything is to water well.

Once in the ground, snowmelt bulbs require no special care. Just let Mother Nature take care of them. You don’t have to deadhead and the foliage will fade away all on its own. If you have naturalized some in a lawn, just mow it as usual: by the time the lawn needs mowing, the snowmelt bulbs’ foliage will be long  gone and they will be fully dormant under the ground where the lawn mower can’t hurt them.

So, snowmelt bulbs: easy to grow, inexpensive (did I mention that?)… and you’ll have the first flowers on the block. Make next spring the best one ever!

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