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Our top 10 early spring bulbs

Doesn’t it lift your spirits when the first of the early spring bulbs start to emerge?
Quietly at first with the gentle green and white of the snowdrops, then other colours start to flow in as the aconites and crocus get going. But as usual we three Growbags disagree on which are the best varieties, so we’ve each listed our own particular favourites and you can decide which of us has got it right.

Laura

It’s me first and as the arbiter of good taste in the family I am presenting four bulbs of subtle refinement that you won’t find my sisters’ choices.

  1. Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ – the double common snowdrop. This is a much more exciting version than the normal singles, with rows of green-edged petticoats , a lovely scent and an RHS AGM award to boot. It’s only drawback is that it’s rather squat so rather than crawl along at ground level to appreciate its charms I always dig up a clump or two to enjoy at table level with in the glasshouse. You can have a better look at them in my little tour of the glasshouse video (link at end of blog).
Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’
Snowdrops don’t thrive in pots long-term but it’s fun to carefully dig up a clump or two at this stage and enjoy them indoors for a week or two before returning them

2. Eranthis hyemalis ‘Schwefelglanz’, a German cultivar of the winter aconite. I find the brassy yellow of the straightforward species aconite a little harsh (think ground level forsythia ….) against the muted green and white of the snowdrops and prefer this creamier coloured cultivar to make the transition to stronger spring colours a little more graduated. It’s our feature picture this week.

3. Fritillaria raddeana, everyone loves Fritillaria imperialis, the flamboyant crown imperial, later in spring but this is its much earlier flowering and more demure cousin. I am always amazed that something as chunky and quietly impressive as this would dare to push through the ground in February and be in full flower by early March.

Fritillaria raddeana
Fritillaria raddeana – braving the early spring weather to bring a touch of class

4. Iris tuberosa, the widow iris. So did you do as I suggested back in September and plant a few of these intriguing little iris? If so the leaves will already be through the ground and you’ll be peering into their pots every morning to see if their curious flowers have opened.

Iris tuberosa
They’re a bit weird, I admit, but I love to see these mutant little irises making an appearance early each spring.

Elaine

Really, Laura? Why would ANYONE want ‘subtle’ at a time when we are all aching for an end to the drabness of winter.  I have to confess that that fritillaria does look rather pretty, but I am prowling my garden each morning hungrily seeking the return of jewel-like colours.  None of my suggestions are particularly choice or fussy, but boy, do they gladden my heart in the watery February sunshine.

5. Iris unguicularis (syn. stylosa) This is the little Algerian iris, and has the distinction of having what is probably the untidiest foliage in the garden!  But it is an utter joy to see the delicately-scented flowers emerging over a crazily long period. Mine developed their first  couple of flowering stems just before Christmas, so I picked them with as long a stem as I could manage, and the lovely blue-mauve flowers emerged from their tan sheaths just in time for the big day.  

Iris unguicularis – nothing special – but it is to me!

It’s simplicity itself to grow, as long as you have a warm spot in full sun that gets baked in the summer.  I always give mine a serious haircut in autumn, so that the flowers won’t get swamped by the horrendously tatty leaves in early spring. If you want more plants, just put a spade through the clump in early autumn, yank it apart into smaller divisions, and replant them straight away.

6. Crocus tommasianus. Again, common as muck really, but glorious in sheets under the bare leaves of a deciduous tree in February, in pools of saturated colour.  There are some really fancy crocus varieties around but not much that can beat the fun of this uncompromising purple set off by its rusty-orange stamens. 

Crocus tommasianus – starry sparkles of colour after the drabness of winter

 7. Eranthis hyemalis, the plain and simple aconite. Laura can sneer all she likes, but I LOVE these tiny cheery ‘buttercups’ at this time of year, each with their bright green ruff to show them off to best advantage.  They are a brilliant food-source for pollinating insects too, when not much else is around for them. To make more of these jolly little treasures, just pull the clumps apart after flowering and before the leaves have died back, just like you might with snowdrops or primroses. Sometimes they’re called winter aconites, and sometimes spring aconites – ‘Eranthis’ means ‘spring’ in ancient Greek, and ‘hyemalis’ means ‘wintry’!

Grow these jolly little aconites and give the pollinators an early party

Caroline

Frankly ‘early’ anything is a no-no for us hardy Northern dwellers. But I’m used to Laura and Elaine loading the dice in their favour and thanks to some great ideas from my wonderful friends in the My Scottish Garden Facebook forum, I’ve got ideas:

8. Chionodoxa – the great advantage to this bulb is it’s lovely sky blue colour at a time when generally we’re over-yellowed. Plant them in numbers in sheltered little rocky bits and they’ll properly thrill you. They’re gutsy too. They were discovered in an alpine region of Turkey by various men apparently all named Forbes but I like to think the true hero was Edward Forbes because he came from Edinburgh!

Chionadoxa or Glory of the Snow. A gorgeous blue in an otherwise largely yellow and white time of year.

9. Narcissus bulbocodium – the hoop-petticoat daffodil. Yes if I was as cheap and cheerful as Elaine I would have proposed those teeny ‘tete-a-tete’ daffs which do brighten things up ‘early doors’, but having a bit more class I’m going to suggest these delicate little beauties. My friend Bill Tait tells me that garden centre Dobbies stocked these for the first time last autumn. They look just a little bit pukka without being downright obscure (Laura).

Hoop petticoat daffodils
Hoop petticoat daffodils. Aren’t these as sweet as? Just a little bit classier than tete-a-tete?

10 Hyacinths – A sense of integrity forces me to say that here in Scotland the most rewarding bulbs in February are actually hyacinths or amaryllis in a bowl next to your sherry or gin and tonic. No point in getting impatient with Mother Nature up North. One must nobly bide one’s time for a month or so, occasionally embracing the comforts of the trusty drinks cabinet..

How I ideally like to enjoy early spring bulbs.

We’d love to hear which of the early spring bulbs you most look forward to..

Here is the link to Laura’s little glasshouse tour

NB It’s not a bulb but Louise’s Plant of the Month is an early spring flowering shrub that no garden should be without. Click on the box below to find out what it is.

NB If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

10 replies on “Our top 10 early spring bulbs”

Sheila thank you so much for that compliment. Caroline here and it was my job to add that video link. I’ll be in so much trouble! I’ve added it now and here it is to save you going back into the blog: https://youtu.be/wGzu7yRbgQk
Thank you so much for flagging it XX

Lovely to see the favourite selections. I have to agree with you Caroline, not all would do well or even survive in my north-facing Scottish garden, certainly not N. bulbocodium. I will ask Bill how he can grow that outdoors, up here. It is in the Alpine House at RBGE. I hope you are keeping well.

Sally how lovely to hear from you. To be fair Bill’s experience of growing them outdoors was from his Wisley days apparently. I love them but I agree – I couldn’t grow them in my old garden or new garden in Scotland. I reckon if you had a walled garden in the New Town you might. I failed to access the Alpine House at RBGE last week – I was told it was out of bounds because of the ‘biome’ work, so I shall just have to forego the enjoyment of these delicate little daffs for another year.Yes Sally Im keeping fine now thank you, and hope you are too. XX

Thanks again girls, and for me it’s the simpler the better ‘cos at this time of year, simple is extra special so, crocus, aconites and oh, those hoop daffs, just g-l-o-r-i-o-u-s!!! Thank you all for the seasonal prompts … enjoy x

Scott I agree. It’s Caroline here and frankly I’m very grateful to see anything appear, let alone anything slightly unusual. Even crocuses struggle here as they are slightly top heavy and the thin stem base is no match for our wind gusts. Oh well – it would be boring to live in 12 months of glorious sunshine, wouldn’t it? Ever onward Scott X

Loving the late winter suggestions. Both you lovelies and Dan Pearson sent me prompts this am about Iris unguicularis. Never heard of it previously but two good recomendations in one morning is a sign! Found a local nursery stocks it. Thank you!

We’re pretty chuffed to be in the same sentence as Dan Pearson Lisa. Yes a super zing of colour when other bold colours are scarce but think you’ll be wanting to trim the foliage later in the year. It’s the sort that takes up BOTH armrests! Wishing you a wonderful week ahead XX

Lovely choices all, ladies and I’d add Iris reticulata as mine are doing so well at the moment, rich purple backlit by the sun, stunning. Laura, I’m trying Fritillaria raddeana this year, being utterly seduced by the photos in the catalogues. My favourites though are my two yellow flowered snowdrop ladies, ‘Madeleine’ and‘Wendy’s Gold’. I am besotted and keep having to go and check them again!

Hello Jennie, you won’t be disappointed with the Fritillaria raddeana – it’s every bit as lovely in real life as it is in photos, I have planted more this year to come up through pots of winter grasses and heucheras, so I’ll post photos on social media if the combination works! I planted some yellow snowdrops a few years back but they have mysteriously disappeared which is a shame as they cost a fortune 🤣 Happy Gardening, Laura

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