Many of the small, dainty Spring-Flowering bulbs known as ‘minor bulbs’ like Aconite, Anemone species, Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow), Crocus, Galanthus (the True Snowdrop), Squills plus Babiana, Freesia, Homeria (Cape Tulip), Lachenalia, Sparaxis, Tritonia and many more are hybrid cultivars of wildflowers. These pretty tiny things grow together so profusely that they carpet the Late winter and Early Spring meadows of their native habitats with vivid patches of spectacular colour.
These tiny things are adored by many Gardeners who live in somewhat inhospitable regions. While very cold climates and also mild, sometimes damp climates of subtropical Winter regions do not suit the proliferation of these bulbs to such an extent, it is possible to raise these tiny treasures with a little care.
The secret is planting in, or creating the microclimate appropriate to each bulb’s natural environment. Almost every garden has a variety of microclimates. Some spots are shaded and subject to cold or cool and chilling winds. These sites work well for Minor Bulbs native to colder regions.
Minor bulbs native to the Mediterranean and South Africa often need a drier, sunny spot which dries out completely during their dormant Summer and Autumn season. In cold climates and also cool moist climates with wet Winters and regular Summer rainfall, it is often best to grow these in containers. These can be sheltered against cold or wet and then brought out for flowering from Late Winter/Early Spring. Then move the containers to a dry spot where
they can rest over the Summer/Autumn dormant season.
One of the easiest and most endeared are the 80 species of Crocus. They are tiny members of the Iris Family native to central and southern Europe. The Crocus has been cultivated in Palestine since the time of Solomon. The original Greek “Krokos” was later Latinized to its present form and means “saffron”. The fiery golden stigmas of the species C. sativus produce the most delicately flavoured spice, Saffron.
Crocus demand dry, hot, long Summer and Autumn seasons, cold Winters and cool Spring conditions. The Spring flowering species usually do better in milder climates. Grow in sun or semi-shade in light, enriched soils. If planted in a warm, well drained spot angled into the Winter sun they will open their wide star-like flowers in the winter cold.
They can sometimes be naturalized in lawns especially under deciduous trees, in rock gardens or in containers if grown in cooler part shade. By planting the tiny corms 5cm/2inches deep or deeper will stop the corms from splitting into tiny cormlets in warmer Spring conditions. Flower colours favour purple, blue, white and yellow shades but hybrids exist in soft pastels and exotic stripes. Leave the foliage alone after flowering and let it ripen completely and dry up to build strength for next year’s flowering.
Galanthus, the True Snowdrop, is a tiny Lily of the Amaryllis family. There are 20 species native to the Mediterranean. The thin leaves support stems of small, pendulous, white bells with green markings. Plants are 10 to 20cm tall. There are single and double forms. They prefer cold Winters and cool, showery Spring conditions. In warm climates try planting Snowdrops in a cool spot with chill winds which slopes away from the sun or try them in light shade. Woodland soil is best. Snowdrops can be increased from seed or bulbs.
Lachenalia includes 65 bulbous species of the Lily Family all native to South Africa. These are half hardy bulbs that produce small tulip-shaped leaves often mottled in bronze or purple. Spikes of waxy tubular bells rise from the centres in winter and early spring. They prefer light soils with perfect drainage. These are excellent bulbs for a dry site or create drier conditions by adding sand and gravel to the planting hole or growing them in containers.
They prefer a sunny site but are frost tender. They prefer rather dry conditions even in Winter and Spring but especially during their dormant period in Summer and Autumn. So in wetter or cold climates these are ideally grown in containers that can be shifted about to create the appropriate microclimate.
Lachenalia abides (tricolour) has lemon yellow bells tipped green with a reddish brown base. L. quadicolour shades from red to green/yellow with a nearly purple interior. L. bulbiferum is pinkish red and prolific. Other species have cream, white, pink, blue, purple and orange flowers. All propagate from seed, bulbs, or leaf cuttings grown in sand to half their depth. While these bulbs might be tiny, when properly grown they are guaranteed to produce giant rewards.
Several other minor bulbs have a South African origin and can be grown in similar microclimates and positions as Lachenalia. Among those are: Babiana (Baboon Flower), Freesia, Homeria, Ixia (Corn Lily), Sparaxis and Tritonia plus many more.
Minor bulbs native to colder climates which will respond to chilling conditions or possible refrigeration include: Aconite (Winter Aconite), Chionodoxa (Glory-of-the-Snow), Claytonia (Spring Beauty), Crocus species, Erythronium (Trout Lily), Galanthus (Snow Drop),Fritillaria, Hyacinthoides species(Blue Bells),Muscari (grape Hyacinth), most Narcissus species, Puschkinia (Squill),Scilla and many more.