When spring arrives a whole host of diminutive bulbs in various shades of blue and lavender spring up. These little blue bulbs, including muscari and scilla, go well with shorter varieties of yellow daffodil or other woodlanders, bringing a spring garden to life.
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.
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When to plant little blue bulbs
Scilla, muscari, chionodoxa and puschkinia need planting as dry bulbs in September, although garden centres often have potfuls in spring and these can be used in containers or borders straight away.
Where to plant little blue bulbs
Bulbs like muscari prefer well-drained soil and sunny situations in spring, and shaded in summer, so under deciduous trees and shrubs is ideal.
How to plant little blue bulbs
Plant muscari, scilla and puschkinia in September 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.
Choosing your little blue bulbs
There are lots of smaller bulbs that should be grown much more widely. One of the earliest is a pale-blue scilla that appears with the snowdrops - Scilla mischtschenkoana. It’s easy and grows in the same positions and each starry flower has a darker-blue midrib. Introduced by Tubergen in 1931, it grows in NW Iran and the Caucasus, this flower pushes through the ground before the leaves.
Later-flowering scillas include S. siberica and this bears cobalt-blue bells held above bright-green leaves in March or April. ‘Spring Beauty’ is a darker form. It also grows in shade and self-seeds, although it isn’t rampant, unlike the violet-blue Scilla bifolia. This is only for a wild garden, or underneath large shrubs where little else grows.
Muscari vary widely and some will colonise large areas. However they make a great cut flower and an early bee flower. The rampant M. armeniacum produces leaves in autumn too - not always welcome. However I do like the Cambridge-blue form ‘Valerie Finnis’ and ‘Blue Spike a double-blue form. Supplier Peter Nyssen.
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.
These bell-shaped flowers, known as grape hyacinths, 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 iridescent 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)
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.
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, similar to a crocus, but will self-seed. 6 inches/15cm.
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.
A taller muscari with a two-tone flowerhead. 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)
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
Other little blue bulbs
Early grey-blue iris with purple shading, that’s sturdy and repeat-flowering every February (15cm/6 in).
Chionodoxa luciliae AGM
Large-flowered blue chionodoxa with longer-lasting flowers - good in grass (10 cm/4 in).
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