A Year in Bulbs: Part Two

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 my.chicagobotanic.org


Selections of Fritillaria imperialis and Fritillaria meleagris are available at our Fall Bulb Festival this weekend; many additional varieties can be found in specialty catalogs.

Fritillaria are some of the most unique spring-flowering bulbs you can grow. Available in nearly every color (except blue), many have interesting patterns on the petals.

Combine this with a worldwide distribution and you’ll find that there is a fritillary for nearly any spot in any garden.

PHOTO: Fritillaria persica
Persian fritillary (Fritillaria persica)

Fritillaries range from Fritillaria meleagris, on the small end at approximately 6-8 inches tall, to Fritillaria persica, which grow to 5 feet tall and are covered in nearly black, bell-shaped flowers. Some of the most commonly available and popular varieties include Fritillaria imperialis, which comes in orange, red, yellow, and variegated forms; Fritilaria meleagris, commonly called the snake’s-head or guinea hen flower because of its unique checkered petals; Fritilliaria uva-vulpis, which has charming yellow and maroon flowers; and the above-mentioned beauty, Fritillaria persica.

Perhaps the best fritillary for the home gardener is Fritillaria meleagris. These undemanding plants will readily naturalize when happy and come in shades of purple and white. Their grassy foliage blends in well with other spring flowering bulbs and the often dark flowers stand out well against the blues and yellows of other spring flowering plants. Their biggest demand is that they never dry out completely in the summer, which makes them perfect for mixed borders that receive supplemental water in the summer. They do best in filtered shade, which helps prevent too much drying out.

PHOTO: Frittilaria meleagris
Fritillaria meleagris
PHOTO: Fritillaria meleagris 'Alba'
Fritillaria meleagris ‘Alba’

Another excellent fritillary for home gardeners is Fritillaria imperialis. This regal plant comes in several colors and has a bold presence. In late spring, the lily-like plants are crowned with a ring of vibrant orange, red, or yellow bells that light up the garden. They can have a somewhat pungent smell, so they’re best appreciated at the back of the flower border. (Although the fact has not been proved, this smell is said to repel rodents.) There are several varieties commercially available, including a variegated form. 

PHOTO: Fritillaria imperalis 'Rubra'
Fritillaria imperalis ‘Rubra’
PHOTO: Fritillaria radaeana
Fritillaria radaeana

When planting imperial fritillaries, care should be taken to plant the bulbs on their sides. Large fritillary bulbs tend to have a hole in the center which can retain water and rot the bulb. This is easily avoided by planting them on their side so that water can’t build up. Another way to help avoid rot is to make sure they’re planted in a well-drained, sunny location.

Consider adding fritillaries to your garden this fall, and welcome spring with a glorious display of color!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org