Crocuses and other spring bulbs FAQs

Most of the catalogues have long lists of crocus species. Could you suggest a few to start with?

They are often rather arbitrarily divided into autumn- and spring-flowering kinds. Your autumn selection might include Crocus cancellatus (syn. C. nudiflorus) one of the largest-flowering purple-veined white crocuses; C. speciosus in white, blue, and purple, the October variety ‘Oxonian’ being one of the darkest and largest. One of the nicest winter-flowering species is C. laeuigatus fontenayi, violet with purple feathering, which blooms in December and January. In February and March comes armies of crocus: C. chiysanthus has many different-coloured varieties; C. tomasinianus, in varying shades of purple, is one of the kinds that seed themselves freely; the dark yellow C. aureus is another free seeder; C. imperati, buff outside and lilac inside, is one of the most majestic; C. susianus is the cloth of gold crocus, and the smaller form C.s. minor is a little later but free-flowering.

I tried growing crocuses in the house last year and they were a dismal failure. Where might I have gone wrong?

Crocuses need to be left for several weeks in the cool to establish a good root system before being introduced into mild warmth. The failed crocuses were probably brought into too warm a room too suddenly. Alternatively, the trouble may have been that the plants were allowed to dry out or to become waterlogged, preventing the flower buds from developing.

I seem to have lost a lot of crocus bulbs. Where could they have gone?

The most likely answer is that they have provided a meal for local fauna. Mice and other rodents are partial to crocuses and tulips. How they rate against other foods I am not sure, but they seem to be eaten most in the winter months when presumably there is less food. Narcissi contain a natural poison and so are less prone to attack.

Crocuses survive and increase best in friable (well-worked and crumbly) soil in open areas. They tend to fade away if crowded by stronger-growing neighbours.

Some of my crocuses have set seeds. Is it worth sowing them?

Many crocus species set huge quantities of seed, and this grows so quickly that a new flowering generation is present in about 18 months or two years. There is great pleasure in choosing the best out of batches of seedlings from species such as C. tomasinianus, C. chrysanthus, and even less-dramatically variable kinds such as C. imperati. You could even produce a future winner to carry a name! The other species are all worth growing from seed as the seedlings are fresh, healthy, vigorous stock.

Which of the dwarf irises are good garden plants?

The old favourite Iris reticulata, 125-150 mm (5-6 in) tall, with violet flowers in February and March, is attractive but rather overshadowed now by /. histrioides ‘Major’, with its royal blue flowers, or by hybrids between these two: ‘Blue Veil’ is an excellent sky blue; ‘Harmony’ is becoming popular for the size and colour of the dwarf bloom (clear blue with central yellow flash) and for the tidy habit of having very low foliage at flowering time; ‘Joyce’ is similar but blooms later; ‘Violet Beauty’ is like a larger version of L. reticulata. The brilliant yellow /. danfordiae is of the same neat size and blooms early. The bulbs tend to split and then build up, and so it is wise to repeat planting for two or three years till a succession of flowering bulbs is established.

I would like to grow ixias outdoors, but are they sufficiently hardy?

The ixias are a genus of South African bulbs; they are not hardy but most of the garden varieties will survive outdoors in the south and south-west of England. The small conns should be planted in October or November to a depth of at least 125 mm (5 in) in well-drained soil in a sunny, sheltered spot. The flower spikes, which appear in May and June, are 300-450 mm (12-18 in) tall, fragrant, and in brilliant shades of blue, purple, red, and yellow. The corms should best be lifted and dried when the foliage dies down.

How do you suggest I grow hardy cyclamens?

If you can get fresh seed, this is the best way of getting stock. Alternatively, you may get growing corms from an alpine specialist. Buy dry, large corms collected from the wild only if all else fails: they are less likely to succeed.

There are several good species. I believe the pink C. hederifolium (syn. C. neapolitanum) and its white form ‘Album’ are the best. They produce a huge number of perfect miniature flowers about 100 mm (4 in) high in the autumn. Attractive marbled foliage follows the flowers. The corms are grown with the tops just below soil level. Once planted they can be left for decades in a rock garden, between shrubs, in the border, in troughs, or in light grass.

I want to grow some interesting small bulbs in miniature gardens in a series of troughs and sinks. Any ideas?

Here are a few: Spring-flowering Anemone blanda in blue, pink, and white, 100-150 mm (4-6 in) high. Crocus species such as C. minimus (April) in white and violet; C. uernus albiflorus (March), white, C. susianus minor (February), gold. Muscari azureum, a dwarf, bright-blue grape hyacinth. Narcissus asturiensis (minimus), a miniature ‘King Alfred’ 50-75 mm (2-3 in); N. triandrus albus, ‘Angel’s Tears’, creamy white bells, 75 mm (3 in). The bluebell-like Scilla tubergeniana (February-March), pale blue and sky blue. Early tulip species include tiny T. biflora, (March-April), with two or three white and yellow flowers, 150 mm (6 in) tall; T. kolpakowskiana, with neat yellow flowers painted red outside; T. tarda, with its prostrate rosette of leaves, and virtually stemless white and yellow stars, 100-150 mm (4-6 in) in diameter.

Every time I try to grow winter aconites they seem to fail. Can you give me some help for one last try?

The problem is to get fresh stock; some corms are very dried up when sold. Try to buy growing plants in March or April. There are two main species, Eranthis cilicica and the better-known E. hyemais, both have golden buttercup flowers in February-March, and E. cilicica has cut foliage with a bronzy cast. ‘Guinea Gold’ is a hybrid series between these species; it is much more vigorous and its flowers are larger. The hybrids are sterile and so produce no seeds but they can be divided each spring. E. hyemalis will seed itself freely, and has quite often strayed into the wild.

I tried some giant snowdrops but they were not very successful. What sorts of snowdrops do you recommend?

I expect you tried Galanthus elwesii, which is sometimes difficult to keep going year after year. The common snowdrop, G. nivalis, and its double form, G.n. ‘Floreplena’, are probably the most reliable; they will bloom and increase from year to year. Clumps can be divided after flowering or dry bulbs can be planted in the autumn.

There are a number of variants of the common snowdrop: ‘Viridapicis’, for example, has green spots on the petals. Some varieties, although expensive, are impressively large and grow well; two fairly readily available hybrids are the large ‘S. Arnott’ and ‘Straffan’.

I have some grape hyacinths but they seem to have a rather messy abundance of foliage. Are there neater kinds?

Grape hyacinths increase quickly. The kind that you have is probably the variety ‘Heavenly Blue’, which has masses of floppy leaves.

Altogether better is its parent, Muscari armeniacum, with similar but darker blue flowers. More unusual is the double ‘Blue Spike’, which has large, wide heads of mid-blue flowers.

Distinct species include the tassel hyacinth, M. comosum, with purple and olive-green flowers; the feather hyacinth, M.c. ‘Plumosum’ (syn. ‘Monostrosum’), with feathery plumes of violet; the Oxford-and-Cambridge hyacinth M. tubergenianum, in which the tops of the spikes are bright sky blue, the bottoms dark blue.

You might also try Hyacinthus azureus, which looks like a neat, very early grape hyacinth in bright, pale blue; there is also a white form.

Those bulbous irises that one sees in florists are very impressive, but are they easy to grow in the garden?

Given well-dug soil in an open situation, they grow well and increase quickly. They bloom in June in what used to be called the ‘June gap’, when other flowers tend to be sparse. They grow 400-500 mm (16-20 in) high; their foliage is upright, tidy, and sparse. The main group is the Dutch hybrids in white, blues, violets, yellows, tan shades, and bicolors such as white and yellow. The English hybrids have wider petals, bloom slightly later, and are now usually sold mixed.

My crown imperials have not turned out to be very ‘imperial’. What can I do to improve them?

These plants (Fritillaria imperialis) resent disturbance so they may take a couple of seasons to establish themselves. They should not be dug around, as this may cause another setback.

The large bulbs are best planted in very-well-drained soil; they want a place in full sun. By planting them on their sides you prevent collection of water in the central hole left by last year’s flower stem.

I like freesias. The corms seem cheap, but are they difficult to grow?

Shop-bought freesia flowers will have been grown under glass, with special attention given to three aspects: they will have been given plenty of light; they will have flourished in airy, buoyant, frost-free atmosphere; the corms will have enjoyed a moist but open, gritty, well-drained compost.

Freesias can be grown from corms or seed. There are now several strains; some are stronger in certain colours, others are particularly large, some with double flowers.

For outdoor growing, freesia corms are heat-treated for several weeks; this has the effect of retarding growth until the spring, and then inducing rapid development and flowering.

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