Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to want to impress visitors with beds of large, showy bulb flowers such as tulips, narcissus and hyacinths, but still, that’s not a reason to ignore the so-called “small bulbs,” those shorter, smaller hardy bulbs that rarely attain more than 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) in height, bulbs such as crocuses, chionodoxas and grape hyacinths. They can be just as impressive as the “big guys” if you know how to use them.
That’s certainly the case with Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), a very small plant with little drooping flowers. The advantage of this plant compared to other small bulbs is that it naturalizes so well, especially in lawns. A plantation of 10 small bulbs will only take a few years to become a carpet 10 ft2 (1 m2) in diameter. Eventually the carpet can extend to cover the entire lawn with pretty but tiny violet-blue flowers.
Siberian squill multiplies readily by seed. After flowering, the seed capsules that form on the flower stem ripen quickly and soon drop their seeds to the ground. Seedlings reach blooming size by the third year, which is very fast for a bulb. You can also harvest the capsules and distribute seeds to new parts of the lawn or to fill in areas where blooming is thinner.
Siberian squill, in spite of its name, does not come from Siberia, but rather from south-west Russia, the Caucasus and Turkey. I assume that it got its geographically inappropriate name because of a mistake in identification (so often the case in the field of botany), but I like to believe that it comes from the great resistance of this plant to “Siberian cold.” Indeed, it is firmly hardy to zone 3 and well worth trying in zone 2.
The other advantage of the Siberian squill is that it will grow almost anywhere, from full sun to fairly dense shade, in soil that is either rich or poor and acid or alkaline and in zones that are both dry and moderately moist. It will even do well in clay, something not all bulbs can stand. In fact, about the only spot where it won’t succeed is in really soggy soil, because, like almost all bulbs, Siberian squill does need to dry a at least a bit during the summer. It won’t be happy, for example, in irrigated lawns and flower beds, as they are generally overwatered.
Good Things in Small Packages
Each Siberian squill bulb bears only two to four narrow leaves and one or two arched flower stems about 6 inches (15 cm) tall, each with two to five downward-facing, star-shaped violet-blue flowers. The cultivar ‘Spring Beauty’ (the most commonly available variety) differs only slightly from the species, with flowers of a more intense blue. Plus it can be slighter taller. The only other commonly available variety is S. siberica alba which has pure white flowers.
Since Siberian squill is so tiny, you really have to plant the bulbs in groups of at least 10 to obtain a noticeable effect … and 25 bulbs is even better!
In any well-drained soil, dig a hole about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) deep, incorporating mycorrhizal fungi and/or bulb fertilizer if you feel the soil is especially poor. Set the bulbs about 4 inches (10 cm) apart, then cover with soil and water well.
You can also plant the bulbs directly in a lawn where the plant will be pretty much unnoticeable except for the flowers, as the narrow strap-shaped green leaves masquerade as grass … and disappear anyway very soon after the plant blooms.
To do so, simply cut a cut out a chunk of turf on three sides, then flip it over on the fourth side, as in the photo above. This will give you a planting hole of about the right depth for your bulbs. Space them more or less evenly, the push the turf back into place and press it down with your foot. Finally, water well. The following spring, squills will pop up through the lawn as if it wasn’t there.
For more information on naturalizing bulbs in turf, read How to Naturalize Bulbs in a Lawn.
Siberian squill also naturalizes well in wooded areas because its flower stems just push right up through the thick carpet of leaf mold found there. And, of course, you can also grow it in a regular flower bed.
The Few Become Many
Generally speaking, you won’t have to propagate Siberian squill: it will spread all on its own. However, if you want to see it multiply more quickly, after a few years of cultivation, you can dig up and replant the bulbs when they’re dormant (June to September). Just separate the bulbs (the original mother bulb will have produced hopdes of babies) and replant them in a suitable spot. And no, if you dig them up as soon as they go dormant (late spring/early summer), you don’t have to wait until fall until you do. Just plant them right away and get it over with!
Can Siberian squill be invasive? Of course! Naturalization means establishing a plant in a site in such a way that it seems to have grown there naturally and is typically done by allowing the plant to extend beyond its original planting spot.
Lovers of perfect lawns consider Siberian squill to be a weed. Not that its presence is harmful to the turf (it grows and flowers on a completely different cycle from lawn grasses, in the early spring rather than in summer and fall, so the two don’t compete), but lawn lovers prefer the appearance of a perfect green carpet over that a flowery meadow. If you’re a lawn maniac, just don’t plant squills!
Personally, I can’t get enough of flowers in my lawn and therefore greatly appreciate Siberian squill, certainly one of the very best flowers for turf.
Another advantage of flowering lawns is, of course, that they feed native pollinators, insects that are having a hard time these days due to the abundant use of pesticides and the dominance of asphalt, concrete and green lawns in our cities and suburbs. Plant squill and other small bulbs in your lawn and you’ll soon see the return of bees, hoverflies and other pollinators. They need early spring flowers to start their season and Siberian squill certainly seems to fill the bill!
Siberian squill: rarely does such a small plant create such an astounding effect. Get yours while you can: garden centers never seem to order enough to satisfy the demand for this tiny plant that is quickly becoming one of the biggest stars of the spring garden!