How to grow little blue bulbs

Val Bourne / 26 January 2012

Little blue spring-flowering bulbs such as muscari and scilla are hardy and easy to grow.



When spring arrives a whole host of diminutive bulbs in various shades of blue and lavender spring up. They go well with shorter varieties of yellow daffodil or other woodlanders. 

These bulbs, mostly scilla, chionodoxa, puschkinia or muscari, are hardy and easy to grow in most soil. With planning it’s possible to have flowers from February until early May. 

You may have been put off little blue bulbs forever having wrestled with the very invasive grape hyacinth (Muscari neglectum). This begins to sprout in autumn, so it can look untidy for six months of the year, and it’s also capable of taking over whole gardens because it produces thousands of offsets every year. So M. neglectum is only a candidate for the larger garden or wilder area, well away from choicer things.

However there are some non-invasive blue bulbs that can be used without problems in containers, spring borders or in grass as they flower early, before the overhead canopy develops, they can also be used under deciduous shrubs and trees.

When to plant

Although they need planting as dry bulbs in September, garden centres often have potfuls in spring and these can be used in containers or borders straight away.

Where to plant

Bulbs prefer well-drained soil and sunny situations in spring, probably shaded in summer.

How to plant

Plant in Septemebr to a depth ofl 3" deep and 2-3" apart.

Plant plenty: these bulbs tend to be inexpensive when bought it bulk from a supplier like Peter Nyssen. They make more of an impact in 50s and 100s.

If naturalising in grass, don’t mow too early. Let the seed heads form and allow the seeds to scatter first.

Varieties

The blue bulbs mentioned are closely related members of the Hyacinthaceae and the hardiest varieties, suitable for the ordinary garden setting, are found in the Mediterranean region eastwards through Turkey to Asia.

In 2000 there was an extensive trial at RHS Wisley and several AGM varieties were reconfirmed and new ones were given. These ones below are considered the finest varieties.

Muscari

These bell-shaped flowers are arranged in an upright spike (technically a raceme) containing roughly forty to sixty flowers on average. Each individual flower has six tiny lobes at the mouth and in some varieties the lobes are a paler colour and they create a paler contrast almost as though every flower is ringed around the edge. Some are sweetly scented. Many will self seed, so remove the spent flowers if seedlings worry you.

Muscari armeniacum ‘Christmas Pearl’ AGM

An iridiscent violet-blue early flowering muscari which is sweetly scented. Not invasive, but the foliage appears in autumn. 6 - 8 inches in height (15 - 20 cm)

Supplier Peter Nyssen - www.peternyssen.com

Muscari armeniacum ‘Saffier’ AGM

A new April-flowering variety with tightly packed rich-blue bells rimmed in white. Not invasive, but the foliage appears in autumn.

Supplier R.V. Roger - www.rvroger.co.uk

Muscari azureum AGM

Not at all invasive with tightly packed, china-blue flowers held on a tapering pointed head. The lower buds open to form a frill and this variety is scented. Good green foliage, which appears with the flowers, and a very neat flower head. Needs good drainage and sun, but will self seed. 6 inches/15cm.

Supplier Avon Bulbs www./avonbulbs.co.uk

Muscari ‘Baby’s Breath’ AGM

Sometimes called ‘Jenny Robinson’, this Cambridge-blue muscari has some pale-green sterile flowers at the top which never open. Neater foliage than the very similar ‘Valerie Finnis’, but the foliage of both in autumn. Both are good in gardens and both haver glacial overtones. ‘Valerie Finnis’ self seeds, but not invasively so. March-April. 6 inches/ 15cm.

Supplier Cotswold Garden Flowers www.cgf.net

Muscari latifolium AGM

Broad green, tulip-like leaves and bold, two-tone flowers in navy-blue and bright-blue. The lower bells are darker than the upper ones and this variety is taller too, at eight inches or more (20 cm). This muscari flowers over a long period between late-March and April due to the pale top knot of sterile flowers. Needs warmth, good soil and growing conditions to spread well and it does not hybridise. (20cm)

Supplier Peter Nyssen- www.peternyssen.com

Muscari botryoides ‘Album’

Scented, diminutive muscari that produces small leaves as it flowers. Pure-white flowers, but there is also a blue form. Neither of them are thuggish, but both need full sun to flower well. ( 4 inches/ 10 cm)

Supplier Peter Nyssen -www.peternyssen.com

Scilla

Scillas are prodigious self-seeders so they naturalise well under deciduous shrubs and trees. Their six-petalled flowers can be starry or cup-shaped and the petals often have a stripe. Scillas like sun when they flower, but bulk up best in areas that are shady and cool in summer. Early-flowering scillas are much hardier than later flowering varieties.

Scilla bifolia AGM

The worst self-seeding scilla of the lot with round seed pods so I always dead head in borders. However this reliable bulb produces a pointed head of purple-blue starry flowers in early spring, usually in late-February or March, held on one side of a red stem.

Supplier - Avon Bulbs www.avonbulbs.co.uk

Scilla siberica AGM

The brightest blue flowers of all with up to six nodding blue bells held on each dark, wiry stem. Each bulb will produce at least two flowering stems. Known as the Siberian squill, this bulb is very hardy and reliable and the combination of shiny, bright-green foliage, cobalt-blue flowers and black stems is irresistible. Probably the best miniature blue bulb of all.

Widely available

Scilla mischtschenkoana AGM

A very early ice-blue scilla flowering often in January, with a noticeable darker blue stripe down each petal. Not often grown, but one of the best early bulbs. The flower head pushes up to be followed by green foliage. Collected by Tubergen and sometimes labelled S. tubergeniana. Grows in sun or shade, reaching six inches. (15 cm)

Supplier Peter Nyssen www.peternyssen.com

Chionodoxa

Literally meaning 'glory of the snow', these starry six-petalled white-eyed flowers appear early and then fade. Often allowed to naturalise in grass and best given a sunny position so that the early flowers are pollinated. Recent name changes have shuffled them up.

Chionadoxa sardensis AGM

The earliest chionadoxa to flower, probably in March, and the one with the darkest gentian-blue petals of all surrounding the characteristic white middle. Each stem bears 4 - 12 flowers, although 22 have been recorded. Easy, reaching up to 6 inches (15 cm)

Rose Cottage Plants www.rosecottageplants.co.uk

Chionodoxa luciliae AGM

At least three weeks later than C. sardensis this variety usually has three really large, pale-violet flowers. It grows well in grass, but mowing must wait until the seedpods have dehissed. This chionadoxa has upward-facing flowers and there are also pink and white forms too.

Supplier Avon Bulbs www.avonbulbs.co.uk

Chionadoxa forbesii

This is the most substantial chionadoxa of all, with about fifteen flowers on each stem. ‘Pink Giant’ is a gloaming shade of pink that shows up well against the bare earth. There is also a ‘Blue Giant’. Grow in bright light to improve sturdiness.

Supplier Avon Bulbs - www.avonbulbs.co.uk

Puschkinia

Puschkinias look like chionadoxas except that each starry flower has a small ‘cup’ at the centre. They are also noticeably different from other blue bulbs because they appear to flower as they leave the ground, before extending upwards to form a willowy flower. Named after the Russian botanist Puschkin.

Puschkinia scilloides (syn. P. libanoticum)

Likes a cool position out of warm sunshine as it appears with the melted snow in its native Turkey and Lebanon. Often best in dappled shade. The flowers are a pale, icy blue with noticeable dark striping and they usually appear between mid-March and mid-April depending on the season. Up to 6 inches (15 cm)

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