The Story of Springtime Bulbs
Springtime bulbs are the impulse purchase extraordinaire: how can anyone resist them!? And nothing creates a spring mood in the home like pots of spring bulbs. They offer convenience for the home plant lover, are guaranteed to flower and radiate lots of energy thanks to all the sprouting bulbs.
Five stars in the potted bulb category have been selected for this March to celebrate the start of spring. Narcissi or daffodils (Narcissus), grape hyacinths (Muscari), tulips (Tulipa), hyacinths (Hyacinthus) and fritillaries or crown imperials (Fritillaria) will flower quickly and radiantly in the warm conditions indoors, thanks to the growers who have already subjected the bulbs to the cold and warm periods required to activate them. In that way the springtime bulbs produce flowers even though it’s really too early.
Springtime bulbs have a variety of origins. Tulips originate from Central Asia, notably Turkey. Hyacinths come from the region east of the Mediterranean (Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq). Narcissus species are found from southwest Europe across the entire continent, while fritillaries are native to Europe, Western Asia and Western North America.
How They Grow in the Wild
All of these plants come from climates with a fairly cold and often snowy winter, but a hot, dry summer. They’re “spring ephemerals,” sprouting quickly in the spring and coming into bloom rapidly to profit from the abundant moisture in the soil at that season, high levels of sunlight (while the trees above and neigboring plants are leafless) and decreased competition for pollinating insects so early in the season. They remain in bloom about 2 weeks, then in leaf for only a few more. Then they dry up and go dormant, retreating into their underground storage organ: a bulb much like an onion.
They remain dormant for a long time (some for up to 6 months!), then start to root and grow as temperatures drop in the autumn and fall rains begin. Still underground, they continue to root and grow all winter, sending up a point of green growth in earliest spring. Then the cycle repeats.
How Springtime Bulbs Are Prepared
Springtime bulbs are harvested in early summer, as they go dormant. They’re stored cool and dry for the summer. Growers then pot up the bulbs in the fall and keep them moist and cold, although above freezing, thus simulating fall and winter. Most need 14 weeks of cold, damp growing conditions before their inner clock tells them it is safe to awaken. Then they’re exposed to light and warmth… and soon spring into bloom. By carefully manipulating the timing of their planting and their care, growers “force” them into bloom one to two months before they would bloom outdoors… and deliver them to garden centers, florist shops and supermarkets for our purchase.
What to Look for When Buying Springtime Bulbs
- Larger bulbs are higher quality and offer the most abundant and largest flowers.
- Check that the plants are free of pests and diseases.
- A potted harbinger of spring must be well rooted; it should not be loose in its pot.
- Dried buds or leaf tips are a sign of too little moisture during cultivation; mold on the bulbs or the soil indicates too much moisture.
- They are sold at various stages of growth: barely sprouting, in bud or in bloom.
- The most advantageous purchase is plants with a well-developed bud that is already showing some color, but is not yet in bloom, thus only days from flowering. You can therefore be sure that you take advantage of the entire blooming season.
- The least advantageous purchase is of springtime bulbs in full bloom. You’ve likely missed at least a few days flowering and they could indeed be nearing the end of their season.
Potted tulips are available in a range which extends from botanical species which remain short and small through to fabulous cultivars with different flower shapes, such as single- and double-flowered, fringed and parrot tulips. The flower can be single-colored or multicolored, flamed or striped.
Hyacinths are available in classic colors such as pink, white and blue, but also novel shades such as purple, salmon and pale yellow. The individual starlike florets are borne densely on a thick stem. They are highly and deliciously scented, with a classic spring perfume.
Potted narcissi are offered as both scented small-flowered Paperwhite narcissi and classic trumpet daffodils, as well as varieties with double flowers. The most common colors are yellow and white, while bicolored narcissi with salmon and orange in the flower are becoming more widespread.
Grape hyacinths derive their name from flowers that look like clusters of grapes. Originally, the flowers were blue, but nowadays also come in white, lilac, purple and pink. The popular potted bulbs have a light musk fragrance, which is reflected in the scientific name Muscari.
Potted fritillaries have bell-shaped flowers. Checkered lily (Fritallaria meleagris) resembles a plover’s egg with spotted, rounded flowers that dangle from on the stems like Easter eggs. Persian lily (F. persica) is taller and more substantial, with a host of deep purple flowers at the top. Crown imperials (F. imperialis) have long stems topped with strongly scented hanging flowers in red, yellow or orange. You’ll want to admire them from a distance: they smell like a skunk close up!
- The cooler the spot in which springtime bulbs are placed indoors, the longer they will flower. Strive for nights below 60?F (15?C) if possible.
- Regular watering helps the bulb to bloom, but too much water will cause it to rot.
- There’s no need to feed—the nutrients are already in the bulb, which makes springtime bulbs “easy care.”
- After they finish blooming, keep them indoors in bright light until temperatures warm up, then plant them in the garden. They shouldn’t be forced a second time.
- If you lack garden space, just put them in the compost: springtime bulbs are designed for a single brief but spectacular season of beauty. No one really expects you to recuperate them.
- Or buy fresh bulbs in the fall and grow your own for next spring. It’s a bit of a challenge, but quite doable. Learn how to do so in the article Forcing Bulbs Without Twisting Arms.
Display Tips for Springtime Bulbs
To make the most of spring bulbs, buy several pots and place them here and there around the home. Drop their pots into ready-made baskets, containers and bowls for added charm. And supplement the display with additional spring accessories—Easter eggs, pussy willows, etc.—for an appealing and atmospheric arrangement. Play a tape of birdsong and the association with spring will be irresistible!
Text and photos, unless otherwise mentioned, adapted from a press release by Thejoyofplants.co.uk.
Styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties
Part of why I love daffodils so much is how hardy they are in my climate (rainy & cloudy for 3 seasons, dry summer). I kept seeing crocused dashed apart by a hard rain — both can be seen naturalized in lawns, here — but daffodils stand strong.
I’m not sure if the wet clay soil is the bigger factor for tulips, or if I just don’t see them much because they get eaten by urban wildlife. A lot of kinds of tulips don’t come back every year just from their breeding.
Back when I believed that they would be perennial, I enjoyed them more. I intend to grow those fancy hybrid gladiolus as a summer bulb again, but it is a bummer that they do not naturalize like some of the hardier species that actually become invasive. Even crocus do not naturalize here, likely because of the minimal chill. Narcissus and daffodil can naturalize in the right conditions, but it is impossible to predict what conditions will be ideal for them.