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The Basics: Specialty Bulbs for Spring

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Grecian Windflower (Anemone blanda) forms a carpet of color—even in a shady site.

When people think of spring bulbs, what usually comes to mind are tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. There is no doubt that this trio leads the spring color parade, but for variety, long-season interest, and dependability, there are many other spring bulbs that deserve more attention and appreciation.

Shorter in Stature and Less Imposing

There are many smaller bulbs (sometimes referred to as minor bulbs) that are easy to nestle into any garden spot and are a beautiful complement to daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Some of these perfect partners include Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa forbesii), whose carpet of sky-blue flowers are a striking contrast to early daffodils, and Grecian Windflowers (Anemone blanda), with petite, daisy-like flowers that mingle gracefully with early flowering, dwarf daffodils, such as Tête-à-Tête or Segovia. For planting at the feet of brightly colored, early-blooming tulips, try the vivid blue-purple of Blue Grape Hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum).

The First to Welcome Spring

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Blue Muscari

When the snow is just starting to melt and gardeners are desperate for the first sign of spring, it's the small-but-mighty bulbs that lead the way. Many of them, such as Winter Aconite (Eranthis cilicica), are in full bloom before the tulips have even poked their heads above the ground. Giant Crocus in white, purple and purple/white stripes flourish almost everywhere, and multiply to form wonderful clumps of color. The nodding blooms of Star of Holland (Scilla siberica) add a welcome touch of vivid blue. Muscari azureum, a sky-blue species and a particularly early blooming form, look great en masse, or mixed with Winter Aconites.

Easy Care and Quick to Multiply

No spring bulbs require less care than this group. Well-drained soil is their only major request. Some prefer full sun, but most of them will perform just fine in the shade. Scatter them beneath trees and shrubs, in perennial beds, along pathways or in the lawn. A few hours of planting in the fall will bring years of early spring beauty to your yard and gardens.

Most of these smaller bulbs multiply readily, forming clumps of color or spreading themselves with abandon and popping up in unlikely places. If you have a woodland area, Wood Hyacinths (Hyacinthoides hispanica) provide an abundance of fragrant bell-shaped flowers in pink, white or blue. Another group of shade lovers are the fritillarias. The Guinea Hen Flower (F. meleagris) has unique checked blossoms of purple and white. These bulbs perform particularly well in damp soil. For more beauty from fritillarias, consider Fritillaria persica , with 3 to 4-ft. stems surrounded by deep-purple, bell-shaped flowers and elegant silver foliage. Camassia, a North American native, is adaptable to either sun or shade, providing 2 to 3-ft. spikes of successive bloom throughout the early summer.

A Few Even Flashier Choices

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Arum Italicum

There is no spring flower that is more dramatic or distinguished in the garden than the Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis). Their dangling bells of red or orange are crowned with a tuft of foliage that gives them a look that's completely unique in the plant world. Planting a group of six or more makes quite a statement!

Most gardeners have yet to discover the dramatic, delft-blue flowers of Queen Fabiola Brodiaea (Triteleia 'Queen Fabiola'). Consider as well, the almost bizarre, burgundy-red, jack-in-the-pulpit type flowers of the Dragon Llily, or the variegated foliage and holly-like red berries of Arum italicum.

Plant a few of these lesser-known beauties in your garden this fall and fall in love with a whole new cast of spring blooming characters.