Bulbs, Little


Bulbs and their tuber, corm, and rhizome relatives are a fascinating group of plants. In the Chicago area they can start blooming as early as February (winter aconite, snowdrop), really make an impact en masse in spring (narcissus, tulip, crocus), produce stunning specimens in summer (ornamental onion, fritillary, lily) and keep on enlivening gardens well into autumn (dahlia, autumn crocus). What other type of flowering plant can match that sequence? Whether cropping up through grass, appearing in rock gardens or taking center stage among the annuals and perennials, bulbs offer a versatility and a smashing swath of color in all gardens.

In addition to the true kings and queens of the bulb garden, there is a very interesting group of smaller bulbs, perhaps not as well-known, but containing many quite worthy little bulbs.

Some have an extended bloom time (windflower), some will tolerate shaded conditions (dogtooth violet, checkered lily, spring beauty) and most will naturalize over the years as long as the foliage is allowed to yellow and wither naturally, thus providing food for the blossoms to come.


All of the bulbs highlighted below are planted in the fall in well-drained soil. They should be planted at a depth of 4 inches to the tip of the bulb and watered well after planting. Since root development is crucial in the fall, sprinkle bulb booster or bone meal over the top player of soil. These contain phosphorus, an ingredient needed for good root growth. Bulbs can be fertilized again when their foliage appears—but this time with a balanced granular fertilizer spread over the soil surface and then watered in. Since bulbs generally like an even supply of moisture during their active growing stage, supplemental irrigation may be necessary during dry periods.

The bulbs listed below in the order of their appearance in the garden require very little care, are easy to plant and can mix and match beautifully with ground covers, annuals, perennials and their big-brother bulbs. And they are perfect in seasonal containers!

Little bulbs may produce little blossoms, but their delicacy, fragrance and charming ability to naturalize in a relatively carefree fashion should earn them a special place in your garden.

Winter aconite (Eranthishyemalis)3-6 inches tallFragrant yellow flowersLate winter to very early springSun, light shade; well-drained soil; 
soak tubers overnight before planting
Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxaspp.)6-10 inchesStarry white, pink, or blue flowersFast spreading in very early springSun, light shade; well-drained soil
Snowdrop (Galanthusspp.)4-9 inchesNodding white flowersVery early springPart shade; moist soil; do not fertilize
Spring beauty (Claytoniaspp.)4-12 inchesWhite to pink flowersForms colonies in very early springShade; moist soil
2-6 inchesWhite, purple, yellow combinations; striped, needlelike foliageEarly springFull sun, light shade; good drainage
White trout lily (Erythroniumalbidum)4-6 inchesNodding white recurved flowers; mottled foliageNaturalizes in woodland setting in early springPart shade; organic, moist soil with good drainage
Windflower (Anemone blanda)5-8 inchesDaisylike lavender/blue, pink, or white flowersSpring; long bloom periodFull sun, good drainage; keep moist; 
soak tubers overnight before planting
Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum)6-8 inchesWhite, bell-shaped flowers with a green dot on each petalSpringFull sun, light shade; best to have morning sun; dry soil; naturalizes
Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)8-15 inchesNodding white flowersBlooms a few weeks after L. vernumNaturalizes in light shade
Siberian squill
(Scilla siberica)
6-8 inchesBlue/white star-shaped flowersSpringSun, light shade; well-drained, organic soil; naturalizes
Dwarf iris (Iris reticulata)8 inchesFragrant purple, blue, or burgundy flowers with yellow markingsLate springFull sun; well-draining soil
Ornamental onion (Allium)8-12 inchesYellow, silver/pink, blue, whiteDepending on cultivar, late spring to summerFull sun; rich soil with good drainage
Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris)12 inchesFlowers checkered brown/purple with white resemble lampshades; unique bulbSpringPart shade; moist, well-drained soil
Autumn crocus (Colchicumgroup)6-12 inchesLarge purple, white, or pink flowers bloom without foliage in autumn. The following spring, leaves appear but die back by June.FallFull sun