Archives For bulbs

One should never assume that this late in the season we are done with blooming bulbs—that simply isn’t the case. There are still plenty of bulbs blooming their hearts out! Summer annual bulbs like dahlias, cannas, and begonias are still blooming like crazy, and several unusual perennial bulbs are just starting their show.

PHOTO: Bulb Garden path.

Annual bulbs such as Dahlia help carry the Graham Bulb Garden through the summer.

Lycoris have many common names—surprise lily, magic lily, naked ladies, and several more—which allude to the fact that these flowers spring forth from bare ground with no leaves in sight. (They leaf out in spring without blooming and then go dormant; blooms appear in fall as a single stalk appears from the bare ground where the bulb resides.) There are currently two species blooming in the Graham Bulb Garden. Lycoris chinensis has beautiful golden-yellow flowers, and Lycoris incarnata has pale pink flowers striped with magenta, giving it the common name of peppermint surprise lily. 

PHOTO: Magic Lily (Lycoris chinensis)

Magic lily (Lycoris chinensis)

PHOTO: Peppermint surprise lily (Lycoris incarnata)

Peppermint surprise lily (Lycoris incarnata)

Autumn squill (Scilla numidica) is a rarely-seen relative of the spring blooming Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). It features soft pink wands of flowers that will gently reseed to form a colony.

PHOTO: Autumn squill (Scilla numidica).

Autumn squill (Scilla numidica)

Alstroemeria ‘Sweet Laura’ is a hardy relative of the ever-popular florist alstroemeria. The yellow-and-orange blooms begin in July and persist for weeks. Just like their cultivated relatives, these make excellent cut flowers.

PHOTO: Alstroemeria 'Sweet Laura'.

Alstroemeria ‘Sweet Laura’

The shadier parts of the Bulb Garden aren’t being left out this late in the season, either. Annual bulbs such as Begonia ‘Million Kisses Honeymoon’ and Caladium ‘Raspberry Moon’ help light up a dark area under the crabapples (Malus ‘Selkirk’). And containers spill over with a cascade of blooming bulb varieties.

PHOTO: Bulb Garden path.

Begonia ‘Million Kisses Honeymoon’ and Caladium ‘Raspberry Moon’ light up the right side of the path, while wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) helps hide the bare stems of the lilies on the left side.


PHOTO: Container garden featuring a mix of bulbs.

Bulbs even work in containers! This container in the Bulb Garden features a mix of annuals: Scaevola aemula ‘New Wonder’, Lantana ‘Little Lucky Red’ and Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’ with a pair of smaller-scale bulbs, Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ and Oxalis adenophylla.

There is still a lot going on in the Bulb Garden, and there is still more to come!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

In just over a month, we’ve gone from having only a handful of small blooms to a lush display of thousands of blooms in every shape and size. Thanks to several warm days, the annual display beds pushed forth to be in their prime just in time for Mother’s Day last weekend.  

PHOTO: Sweeps of tulips line the winding paths of the bulb garden.

Sweeps of tulips line the winding paths of the Bulb Garden.

Those warm days also meant the end of the main daffodil season, leaving us with just a few of the late-blooming varieties such as Narcissus ‘Dickcissel’, a unique jonquil-type daffodil with dark yellow flowers and a white cup.

The real star of the late spring garden though, are the tulips. As if by magic, more than 5,000 tulips in our annual displays started blooming overnight. Doubles such as Tulipa ‘Orange Angelique’ and Tulipa ‘Foxtrot’ add unique texture alongside bold colors like Tulipa ‘Queen of the Night’ and Tulipa ‘New Design’.

PHOTO: Narcissus 'Dickcissel'.

Narcissus ‘Dickcissel’ is consistently among the latest-blooming jonquils in the Bulb Garden.

PHOTO: Tulipa 'Queen of the Night' and Tulipa 'Orange Angelique'.

Tulipa ‘Queen of the Night’ and Tulipa ‘Orange Angelique’

In addition to these showy giants, there are more subtle species tulips adding pops of color throughout the garden. Tulipa batalini ‘Apricot Jewel’ adds spots of warm yellow to lighten up a planting of dark-leaved Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, Camassia leichtlinii, and Allium aflatunense. These species tulips are often better perennializers, making them great additions to the garden, as long as they’re protected from rodents.

In addition to all these big, showy bulbs, there are many that require a closer look.

This bed might look like it’s mostly perennials, but if you stop and look you’ll see a sweep of Fritillaria acmopetala and Fritillaria uva-vulpis, along with a groundcover of the tuberous Anemone ranunculoides, and several varieties of Narcissus.

PHOTO: Fritillaria acmopetala.

Fritillaria acmopetala

PHOTO: Fritillaria are sprinkled amidst other spring bulbs under a ferociously blooming pink crabapple tree.

They might be hard to see from a distance, but this bed contains dozens of Fritillaria, each with a unique pattern.

We’re currently experiencing elevated lake levels, which gives us an opportunity to show that there are at least a couple of bulbs that will survive standing water for a period of time: Bletilla striata and Camassia.

PHOTO: Bletilla striata.

Bletilla striata

PHOTO: Camassia leichtlinii blooming though flooded.

Camassia leichtlinii can handle seasonal flooding without any issues.

Bletilla striata is a hardy ground orchid native to China and Japan that is very tolerant of saturated soils during the growing season. (However, it should never be allowed to sit in water in the winter.)

Camassia are native to the Pacific Northwest and naturally grow in wet meadows. This makes them a terrific bulb for gardeners who experience seasonal flooding or have areas with poor drainage. The tall blue spikes of flowers provide a welcome dose of color after your main spring bulbs are finished blooming; the plants also are long-lived.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Things move quickly in the bulb garden in the spring!

In three weeks, we’ve already seen the “little blue bulbs” (Scilla and Chionodoxa) come and go, the first of the species tulips burst forth with color, and the foliage fill out, creating a rich, green backdrop, allowing the flowers to shine. Even with our cold spring, we’ve already had a month of flowers—which goes to show just how tough these plants really are. We’re on our third flush of flowers while many other gardens are still just waking up for the season.

PHOTO: A view of the south path, dotted with the blues and reds of scilla and tulips.

The south path on April 21, showing the last of the Scilla and Tulipa batalinii ‘Bronze Charm’

The little blue bulbs are making way for the most popular and well-known of the bulbs; the daffodils (Narcissus) and hybrid tulips. We’ve also got many types of Fritillaria, Corydalis, and Muscari adding unique colors and forms to the display. The foliage is filling out, creating a lush oasis of green in an otherwise still-dreary spring.

PHOTO: A view of the south path, now filled with narcissus.

The south path on April 30—note how the Scilla and tulips have given way to Narcissus, with many more flowers waiting to burst forth

Photo: A combination of differently-shaped blooms in purple and white make a beautiful contrast.

Corydalis solida ‘Purple Bird’ and Muscari aucheri ‘White Magic’

PHOTO: Closeup of Muscari 'Pink Sunrise' blooms.

Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’

Look closely as you walk along the paths, and you’ll see many unique flowers, such as several varieties of Erythronium and Fritillaria of all different sizes and colors.

PHOTO: A closeup of Fritillaria imperialis 'Aureomarginata'.

Fritillaria imperialis ‘Aureomarginata’

PHOTO: Closeup of Erythronium hendersonii in bloom.

Erythronium hendersonii

On May 1, we had our first Meet the Horticulturist for the season. I had the opportunity to lead a group of visitors around the Graham Bulb Garden and highlight some of the most unique and exciting things in bloom. Some visitor favorites included Corydalis varieties with their jewel-toned flowers and soft cushions of blue-green foliage; the cheerful spikes of blue, white, or palest pink Muscari; and dwarf Iris ‘Evening Shade’, which is a new hybrid Juno iris, with a unique growth habit, that looks very much like a miniature corn plant. Another plant that really wowed the visitors was the variegated crown imperial fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis ‘Aureomarginata’).  

Meet the Horticulturist events are a great way to get a more in-depth view of some of your favorite gardens. We’ll be featuring four more throughout the summer, with various other gardens as the highlight. Come talk with us!

PHOTO: Narcissus in the Bulb Garden.

Narcissus are just starting to put on a show.

PHOTO: Closeup of dwarf Iris 'Evening Shade'

Iris ‘Evening Shade’

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Just when the hostas, lilies, and other garden perennials are going to bed for the season, these bulbs are waking up. 


PHOTO: Closeup shot of the leaves of Arum italicum 'Jet Black Wonder'

Arum italicum ‘Jet Black Wonder’ has unique black spots and pink- tinged flowers.

Arum first emerge in the late fall. The broad, arrow-shaped leaves of Arum italicum are highly ornamental and sturdy—quickly perking up after hard freezes, providing a welcome spot of green in the winter garden. Throughout the winter, they remain green and full, providing a welcome burst of green in the winter garden. In the late spring, they send up creamy white flowers that resemble calla lilies (Zantedeschia sp).

Soon after flowering, the leaves die for the season, revealing showy, fruiting stalks of bright red, highly ornamental berries. While these berries are quite attractive, do be aware that they’re poisonous and should be planted where they won’t tempt any children or pets to eat them. If located in an ideal site, they will reseed and form a ground cover. There are dozens of varieties, each with its own unique leaf patterns.

PHOTO: Wilted Arum italicum in the Garden.

Arum italicum ‘Mamoratum’ after a cold snap.

PHOTO: Arum leaves look back to normal after warming up following a heavy frost.

This is the same Arum italicum pictured above after recovering from the frost.

Fall cyclamen

PHOTO: Cyclamen leaves emerge from the ground in spring.

Cyclamen hederifolium ssp. crassifolium

There are two primary types of cyclamen that are hardy in Chicagoland. These are the fall-blooming Cyclamen hederifolium and spring-blooming Cyclamen coum. The fall-blooming Cyclamen hederifolium have ivy-shaped leaves with stunning silver patterns and small, windswept-looking flowers. Cyclamen coum blooms in the late winter or early spring, and has heart-shaped leaves with silver patterns.

Both plants grow their leaves in the fall and carry them through the winter before going dormant in the spring. Their flowers range in color from pinks and lavenders to white. Cyclamen prefer a shady spot that doesn’t stay wet; otherwise the bulb will rot.

A great place to plant cyclamen is under deciduous trees, where the leaf canopy will protect the dormant tubers from excess rain. If sited properly, they will reseed and form a ground cover.

PHOTO: Cyclamen bloom through the leaf litter in Home Landscape Garden.

Fall cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) blooming in Farwell Landscape Garden.

Fall allium

Among the latest-blooming bulbs are the often overlooked Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’ and A. thunbergii ‘Ozawa Alba’.  These relatives of onions form grassy clumps that look green and fresh all summer long and suddenly burst forth with small clusters of flowers resembling pink-and-purple lollipops in late October, often continuing until mid-November. (As of November 17, these were still going strong in the Farwell Landscape Garden, even after hard rain, several hard freezes, and a light snowfall!) Allium thunbergii prefers to be located in a sunny, well-drained location, where it will continue to grow and thrive for many years. These are great plants for a sunny rock garden, where they provide a welcome shot of color at the end of the season.

PHOTO: Purple fall onions blooming in the Garden.

Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’

PHOTO: White fall onions in bloom.

Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa Alba’

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and

PHOTO: The blooming flower stalk of Sicilian honey garlic.

Reminiscent of Fritillaria, Sicilian honey garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum) is a beautiful ornamental allium selection.

Garlic is so easy to grow that the instructions could be just one sentence long:

In October, separate a large head of garlic into individual cloves, and plant 3–4 inches deep in well-amended, well-drained, and well-mulched soil until harvest next July.

But let’s dig a little deeper into that sentence for a few tips on growing a gorgeous garlic crop.

In October… Fall is the season for planting garlic in our area. Wait until the first light frost to plant, and don’t worry if you see a few garlic sprouts popping up before winter sets in.

…separate a large head of garlic… Which garlic to plant? Experiment with different varieties to find the flavor you like best. Nurseries and seed catalogs offer seed garlic (grocery store-bought garlic isn’t as reliable as seed). There are two main types:

  • Hard-necked varieties grow well in northern climates like ours, where winter is cold and spring is long. As the name implies, hard-necks produce a rigid flower stalk  or “scape” with aerial bulbs. The scape should be cut off at about 10 inches long so that the plant continues to put its energy into the underground bulb. Don’t toss the scapes—eat them, instead, in soups, sautés, etc. ‘Music’, ‘German Extra Hardy’, and ‘Chesnok Red’ are hard-neck varieties known for their wonderful, complex flavors.
  • Soft-necked varieties don’t produce scapes; their soft foliage can be braided for easy hanging/storage. While soft-necks flourish in the South, some varieties, such as ‘Inchelium Red’, can be successfully grown here.
PHOTO: A basket of garlic, with each bulb labeled with its cultivar name.

Try growing different garlic varieties to find the flavor you like best! Photo: Lisa Hilgenberg

…into individual cloves… To grow the largest garlic heads, plant only the largest garlic cloves, and leave the papery “tunic” intact. Cloves can rot without their protective tunic! Hard-necked garlic heads yield large cloves in small numbers (often 4–6), while soft-necked garlics bear more numerous cloves, often in several layers.

…and plant 3–4 inches deep… Plant cloves roots down, points up, about 6–8 inches apart.

…in well-amended… Soil prep is key to a successful crop, no matter what type of soil you have. Garlic is a heavy feeder, so the soil needs to provide plenty of nutrients, air, and water. Amend your soil with compost or well-aged manure until it feels loose and airy. Aim for a neutral pH of 6.5.

…well-drained… While it needs to be kept watered, it is important to plant it in a spot where the soil is moist, but not too wet. Garlic doesn’t like “wet feet.” Once foliage appears in spring, water consistently (about 1 inch per week) until two weeks before harvest in July.

…and well-mulched soil… After a hard frost, cover the garlic bed loosely with a thick layer of mulch (about 6 inches of straw, leaves, and/or grass clippings). Mulch acts like a blanket over the bulbs and soil, holding in moisture and keeping down weeds, which can easily overwhelm and outcompete garlic. Leave mulch intact through the season—garlic sprouts will make their way through it—but remove it when things warm up in the spring.

…until harvest next July. In July, garlic foliage begins to turn brown, signaling that harvest is near. Wait until just five green leaves are left on the plant. Then use a pitchfork to gently loosen the soil beneath the bulbs and bring them to the surface. Resist the urge to pull them by their stalks, taking care not to damage the papery tunic! Brush off most of the dirt, then allow your harvest to cure:

  • Spread out the bulbs (with foliage intact) on screens, or tie them in loose bundles and allow to dry in a shady, well-ventilated area, such as a back porch or garage.
  • Do not wash the bulbs to remove soil! Leave them undisturbed for 4–6 weeks, during which time they’ll dry out completely. 
  • After curing, trim the roots and cut stalks to about 1 inch from the bulb. 
PHOTO: Garlic bulbs in storage on a shelf (with artful lighting).

Curing garlic: also a wonderful photographic still life. Photo: Karen Zaworski

Many of these same cultural practices follow for shallots and other allium varieties.

One last tip: Store your garlic at 50 to 70 degrees—but not in the refrigerator, as cold makes bulbs sprout early! With proper curing and storage, your bulbs should last about four months.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and