Help! My Bulbs Are Upside Down

Even if you plant bulbs upside down, they won’t grow downward. Photo: pngfind.com, freepsdfilescom & wayfair.com

Question: I planted 40 tulip bulbs last month. Then I read you’re supposed to plant them with the pointed end up and the flat part down. I did the opposite! (It just seemed obvious to me that the point showed which direction you were supposed to plant the bulb!) I went out yesterday to dig them up and replant them the right way, but to my horror, the top (bottom?) of the first bulb I ran into was covered with roots and I didn’t dare move it for fear of damaging them. What should I do? Am I going to lose my tulips?

M. Khan

Answer: Don’t worry about it! Most bulbs have a flattened basal plate (basal meaning bottom) from which roots grow and a pointed side from which stems grow, so it makes sense to plant them with the flat end down and the pointed end facing up. But … if you plant them sideways or upside down, they’ll still grow perfectly well.

Tulip bulb upside down, roots on top and flower stalk redirected towards top.
An upside down bulb will send its flowers upward, not down. Photo: pngfind.com, freepsdfilescom & wayfair.com

Roots will appear from the basal plate, no matter what its angle, generally shortly after planting, and, in the spring, the flower stem, which will initially start growing pointing down, will quickly change direction and grow up. It reacts negatively to gravity and whichever way gravity tries to pull it, it will stubbornly grow the other way. This is known as negative gravitropism.

At worst, your upside-down tulip bulbs might be a tad shorter than normal, but even that isn’t a given.

And the bulb will correct itself the coming year. After a tulip bulb blooms, the mother bulb produces offsets or daughter bulbs: usually a big one that will replace her and bloom next year and smaller bulbs that help her reproduce and won’t bloom for a few years. The mother bulb then dies, her job done. However, the offsets that are formed will all grow the right way up, with the basal plate to the bottom and the point towards the sky. Ain’t nature wonderful?

Anemone tubers dry, in a box
With anemone tubers, you can’t tell which side is up anyway. Photo: Andrew Butco, Wikimedia Commons

This information applies to pretty much any bulb or bulblike organ. And that’s especially good news for those bulbs that don’t clearly have an up side or a down side, like the lumpy tubers of anemones (Anemone blanda and A. coronaria) and winter aconites (Eranthis hiemalis). You’ll never be able to guess which side goes up, so just plant them any old way.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

5 comments on “Help! My Bulbs Are Upside Down

  1. When I was a child “helping” with the garden, my Mother told me that if I planted the tulips upside down they would bloom in Hell. When she wasn’t looking, I’d put in a few that way so the poor souls languishing there would get to see the pretty flowers.

  2. When plant large quantities of bulbs, I merely dig a trench to the appropriate depth, dump the bulbs in, and bury them. They figure it out. When I plant bearded iris or other rhizomes, I prefer to orient them properly though.

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