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There are several different kinds of spring bulbs which give rise to our long-awaited flower show each spring. They are the underground storage organs for a lot of the blooms which give us so much pleasure after the long cold months. Their main purpose is to ensure that the plant has sufficient nutrients for the winter. All plants which produce spring bulbs and other such organs have a very clever system indeed which means they will make it through winter, year after year. Using this method, they not only survive, but spread horizontally as well, as you will see when you need to divide them up.
What happens is this:
First the bulb sprouts roots at the base to anchor the plant in the soil, and stems at the tip which give rise to flowers and leaves in the spring. Then it lies 'dormant', awaiting the right amount of sunlight and moisture to bring those tiny long awaited green shoots through the soil.
Another advantage these amazing plants have is that they can reproduce both sexually (flowers) and asexually (bulbs). This gives them even more of a chance of passing on their genes to the next generation which is what they're all about: making babies.
These incredible organs contain food for the whole plant which will sprout in spring and live hopefully for years and years if the correct care is taken. Dividing them each year is much like pruning back roses - it increases their chances for more blooms to follow. Even snow can't beat them, in fact it helps to keep them warm. You can read more about how even the roots survive the winter underground: Perennial Flowers.
It is truly one of Nature's miracles to see those tiny flowers pushing up through the ice and snow towards the warmth of the sun. They have survived all of that cold underground because of the bulbs and other similar storage organs.
These underground food supplies contain everything the plant needs. Dividing them each year is much like pruning back roses - it increases their chances for more blooms to follow. Even snow can't beat them, in fact it helps to keep them warm.
Note: Most Spring Bulbs are not annuals because their underground parts remain alive after each flowering season, but we can call them that in the garden, because they only flower annually. Annuals are those plants which die completely at the end of each flowering season. eg. sweet peas, marigolds, nasturtiums, phlox, carnations, snapdragons and so many others. (I have grown Grape Hyacinths in SE Queensland which is sub-tropical) and they make a stunning border for a garden path.
Nearly all Bulbs are Perennials because they come back at the same time each year. However, some tender bulbs may not survive in very cold areas. These will need to be re-planted annually or brought indoors for the whole winter.
Almost all bulbs give rise to Monocots (see the leaves of the Lily of the Valley below: they have parallel veins) and some Orchids have pseudo-bulbs which are actually above ground. The only true bulb which is a Dicot is the Oxalis or Wood Sorrel. Photo Credit.
Examples of true Spring Bulbs which delight us are the Lily, Tulip, Hippeastrum, Hyacinths, Narcissus (Daffodil and Jonquil), and the beautiful Dutch Iris.
All of the other Spring Bulbs are not really bulbs at all. They consist of different underground storage organs called:
Corms: (Gladioli, Crocus and Freesia)
Rhizomes: (Lily of the Valley, Iris Flowers, Agapanthus and Canna Lily)
Tubers : (Begonia, Sweet Potatoes, Cyclamen and Dahlias) and there are even two types of tubers: Stem Tubers (Tuberous Begonia and Cyclamen); and Root Tubers (Dahlias).
The beautiful spring flower, the Freesia, grows from a Corm. There are about 16 species of Freesias in the group Iridaceae which have a beautiful perfume and are definitely one of my favourite flowers (but I prefer the old-fashioned cream Freesias for their perfume and creamy colour). They grow to about 15 cms in height. They come in pink, mauve, yellow, cream, orange, white and a gorgeous red, as well as many bicoloured and other hybrids.
Lily of the Valley. This beautiful spring annual is actually one of the rhizomes which spread laterally underground forming colonies and also contain nutrients for the flower as well as for the dormant phase in winter. The stems grow from 15-30 cms in height with one or two leaves, 10-25cms long. There may be from 5-15 flowers on each stem which have a beautiful sweet perfume. Their botanical name is 'Convallaria majalis'. And once again, this plant is poisonous. The leaves look just too big for the tiny flowers.
Anemones are examples of tubers. They are very colourful and belong to the Ranunculaceae family. They grow to about 3 feet tall and the same across; they are light and look so beautiful danccing in the breeze (which is why they are also called Windflowers). They are white, mauve, red or rose pink. Also known as Windflowers).
So, to summarize, we can have Bulbs, Corms, Rhizomes and Tubers in our gardens in Spring - the underground storage systems. We just need to divide them after each flowering season to get the most benefit from them.
All of the beautiful Spring Bulbs which delight us are called Ornamental Bulbs as opposed to bulbs such as onions and garlic which are grown for food. Whatever kind of spring bulbs we choose, they are a Godsend for any garden after the long months of cold and dark. Some can thrive in very hot sun and dry soil, whilst others love the shade and can be planted as a really showy patch under a favourite tree. A bed of blue will look amazing underneath a pink flowering cherry tree if you choose them so that their flowering periods coincide. That's easy to do - just look at the packet.
There are also summer flowering bulbs, and autumn flowering bulbs so you can mix and match in every season after winter has passed.
A wonderful feature of spring bulbs is that they can be dug up and transplanted into whatever part of the garden you choose. Also, they can be forced to flower. (I 'm always wary of this procedure - from the plant's point of view). Learn how to do this.
In cold climates the springtime bulbs should be planted in the early autumn to allow them to establish themselves underground before the cold brings on their dormant phase which will last all winter until very early spring.
If you want your garden to dazzle in springtime, then the first spring bulbs should be planted in autumn.
If you want some bulbs to flower in summer, planting them in the spring is best.
And for autumn flowering, they may be planted from early to late spring.
This is just a general guideline, because it is the information on the packet which will help most. It also tells you where to plant them. Full sun, semi-shade, etc.
An invaluable piece of advice for buying bulbs from packets on the supermarket shelf or hardware store or even the nursery, is to make sure you buy them fresh so you know they haven't been stored for too long. Signs of age are much the same as keeping onions and potatoes for a long time - they sprout at both ends. This is what happened to me and none of the bulbs came up! If you see 'struggling bulbs' in a packet, don't feel sorry for them and bring them home. Go for the fresh ones!
When you have found just the right spot for your bulbs, whether it be full sun, shade or partial shade, dig a hole about twice the length of the bulb (from top to bottom) and place them in with the narrowest part at the top (the shoots) and the flat part at the bottom (the roots). You can plant them sideways if you're not sure, and if you get it all wrong it doesn't matter. They will still come up the right way because the shoots will aim for the sun, and the roots will head downwards into the food source, the soil.
Most bulbs will be happy with a depth which is two to three times their length. It will say on the packet if they need to go deeper.
Crocus ligusticus. Very special. Photo Credit: Meneerke Bloem.
The beautiful colours of the Dutch Crocus in Spring.
This photo shows the leaves of the Crocus. This helps with identification in case you see some by the roadside. This is how I was able to identify my first crocus.
"The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size". Gertrude S. Wister