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Suprise Me in the Spring

by Nancy Schramm


The bulb is the plant world's ultimate surprise package. There is simply no way to look at an unknown, dormant bulb and guess what the plant or flower will look like. In addition, bulbs that planted in the fall often don't emerge from the ground until spring, completely surprising some of us less-organized types who may have forgotten exactly what was planted where. If you act quickly, there is still time this fall to plant a variety of bulbs that will surprise and please you for years to come.

The first bulbs I ever planted were the large, traditional yellow daffodils (Narcissus). I still love them because they are so easy to grow and care for. All you have to do is plant them in full sun, in an area where there is little summer water. Even the gophers and deer leave them alone. But don't stop with just the yellow ones, there are many lovely daffodils with different colors, shapes, and forms.

     The last few years I've tried some miniature or rock garden types, and have been delighted with a type called "hoop petticoat," which describes the flower shape. N. "Golden Bells" is a particular favorite of mine, they do well in containers, as well as in the ground.

Tulips have always seemed like too much work to me, until I discovered species tulips. To the casual eye, species tulip flowers are nothing like the formal looking bulbs that must be planted every year, but they have a charm all their own. In this climate, if you plant the species that need little winter chill, the bulbs can be left in the ground to naturalize and re-bloom year after year. I'd recommend Tulipa bakeri "Lilac Wonder" which has a large lavender flower with a yellow throat, and T. tarda for an open star-shaped flower that is mostly white and yellow.


I love blue flowers. Muscari, the grape hyacinth, will give you blue flowers in every shade imaginable. Super easy to grow unless you give them too much water and shade, these grassy leafed bulbs are especially nice planted in masses. The typical varieties are fairly small (less than 12" tall) and are suitable for containers. These bulbs are said to be deer-proof.

Another easy spring blooming bulb is Galanthus or snowdrop. These little wonders are the first to bloom as winter turns to spring. Pendant, bell-shaped white flowers are often tipped with green. They are so popular in England that there are whole societies dedicated to growing and admiring snowdrops. They are deer-proof, too!

Less common, but worth looking for, is Babiana (baboon flower) not a true bulb, but a corm that can be treated like a bulb. It is an undemanding plant originating from South Africa, fairly small, but with large, brightly colored flowers shaped like freesias. The ribbed, hairy leaves grow in fan shaped clusters, mostly less than 10" tall.

So far, we've only been talking about spring blooming bulbs. But there are some wonderful choices if you want a little fall flower color, too. Probably the most common, and the easiest, is the true Amaryllis, A. belladonna, the Naked Lady. Dug and planted during or immediately after they bloom (the month of September), they will usually bloom again the next year. However, if you dig them at any other time, they may sulk for years before blooming again. Plant amaryllis with some of the bulb exposed in a sunny location, and you can completely forget about them. They need no supplemental irrigation. Amaryllis are usually pink in color, but a closely related cross called Amarygia comes in colors ranging from pure white to a dark pink that might be called red.

Colchicum is a fall blooming corm, often called autumn crocus. Plant them in full sun where they can remain undisturbed, with just a little water during their dormancy (summer) and you will be rewarded with amazing flowers in the fall. I just saw some C. "The Giant" that were at least 5" across, no more than 5" off the ground.

My friend Sherry said I must include Sternbergia lutea in this column. Another fall blooming bulb, she says it has sent out golden yellow flowers faithfully for her for over ten years. The narrow leaves are just taller than the flower spikes and stay green over the winter. This is one more bulb that will be happiest left undisturbed for years, and kept dry in the summer.

I can recommend two mail order sources: McClure & Zimmerman and Van Engelen Inc.

A final note: I'd love to hear from any of my readers if there is topic you'd like me to write about. Email or call me at (408) 847-2313.

Copyright. Out and About Magazine

           Third generation owner of Carman's Nursery, Nancy Schramm and her husband recently moved the nursery from Los Gatos to Gilroy where they have lived for 24 years. The nursery is known for growing rare and unusual plants including bonsai starters, dwarf conifers, rock garden plants and (of course) less common fruiting plants. Nancy has been a member of the Western Horticultural Society since 2003. She follows in the footsteps of her father Ed Carman, the founder of Carman's Nursery. Ed was one of the charter members of the Western Horticultural Society and also served on the first Board.

Contact Nancy at

Western Horticulture Society
PO Box 166, Mountain View, CA 94042
(650) 948-4614 or (650) 941-6136