5 Choice Small Bulbs for a Spring Garden

Ilona Erwin

A pool of blue blooms, spritely heads of rosy pink or golden splashes of bee charmed cups… the world of minor bulbs can provide a touch of color or a naturalized bonanza of it.

There are more small bulbs than the usual crocus and snowdrops that are not so widely written about and planted. They can prove to be delightful, attractive additions to even very small spaces, and since they naturalize well, require little care. In fact some of the best care is to simply leave them alone long enough for their leaves to replenish the bulb’s resources for blooming the next year.

  1. Allium moly

    While many alliums belong to the purple family of colors, this one stands out with bright yellow, star-shaped florets, in a loose ball called an umbel. While some of its relatives are taller and more showy, this one is quite dependable and isn’t overly particular about soil except that it be well drained. Needs sun, so don’t tuck it too far under trees or shrubs, but give it space in a garden bed. Called a “lily leek” you could eat the bulbs if you wished, but I think they are much better left to ornament the spring garden.

    allium moly

    Allium moly
    Photo credit: gracey


  2. Anemone blanda

    The Grecian windflower, Anemone blanda, is one of my favorites. Like the Eranthis, it is a member of Ranunculaceae, or Buttercup, family. They are native to southeastern Europe, from the same region as the Winter Aconites. In pinks, blues, and whites, which are all equally pretty, the bulbs may be purchased as a mixture or in named varieties of separate colors. They will naturalize in grass, are deer resistant, and appreciate a little more sun and shelter than some of the other bulbs mentioned in this article. ‘White Splendor’, ‘Radar’, ‘Blue Shades’, and ‘Atrocaerulea’ are all good choices. They flower for a long period, which is one reason I like them so well.

    anemone blanda

    photo by Andrew Sharpe

  3. Eranthis hyemalis or Winter Aconites

    The winter aconites, called “Der Winterling” by German gardeners, is beloved for its very early rich, golden flowers. They bloom with a small ruff of green, nestled within their leaves, and then stretching out towards the spare sunlight of spring. Native to the south of Europe, they made their way into northern European garden of the noble and wealthy by the 16th century. Flourishing in England during the Landscape movement of the 18th century, they are naturalized in gardens there.Aconites have a toxin in all parts and so care should be taken to wash hands after handling if you might be sensitive to it.


    A group of winter aconite in a wooded area

  4. Scilla siberica -Spanish Squill

    These bright greenish blue spring flowers make a powerful impact when they bloom, and are the fastest naturalizers in my Zone 5 garden. Their downward facing blue bell shaped flowers bloom freely, they may be multiplied by lifting and dividing the bulbs or by spreading the seed which forms in globular seedheads. Very hardy, as you would expect by the “siberica” appellation, Zone 3-9. They come in a white form, but I think that color is better represented with other bulbs; still, there are those who like the ‘alba’ variety.


  5. Fritillaria meleagris -Chess Flower or checkered lily

    March to May bloom. Unofficially considered to be the national symbol of Croatia. Grows in damp meadows and in uplands. Recorded as early as the 16th century in England, it is less abundant than in former times.

    Snake's Head Fritillaries, Wimbledon

    photo by Laura Nolte, on Flickr

How To Grow These Choice Small Bulbs

General Bulb Growing Advice

  1. Allium moly: well drained soil; full sun; blooms late spring/early summer. Plant 3″ to 4″ deep.
  2. Anemone blanda: hardy in zones 4 to 9; deer resistant; tolerates black walnut; medium sun, humusy soil, medium moisture; shelter from wind; blooms early spring, later than the Siberian squills. Plant 2-3 inches deep.
  3. Eranthis hyemalis: part sun; rich humusy earth; moist soil; plant 4″ deep; blooms in March/April.
  4. Scilla siberica: need cold period to bloom; average soil; full to part sun; blooms in early April. Plant 4″ (8-10cm) deep.
  5. Fritillaria meleagris: requires moist soil, even when dormant; hardy Zones 3 to 8; prefers part shade; deer resistant. Blooms mid-spring, plant 3″ deep as soon after purchase as possible.

Where To Grow This Group Of Five Minor Bulbs

minor bulbs

Where to Grow the Five?

Of all the five spring blooming smaller bulbs, Eranthis hyemalis likes most to be left alone. In moist earth, sheltered beneath trees and shrubs, they may well naturalize into large stands if left alone. They appear suddenly to carpet the earth where they have found a place they like, and then they disappear as suddenly. although their color would match a forsythia beautifully they bloom too early to coincide, and so matching them with Galanthus nivalis, the Snowdrops, and framing them against evergreen shrubs or under a tree or shrub creates an early spring/late winter vignette.

The windflower, Anemone blanda, appreciates sun and not too much disturbance, it will disappear if rooted around in too much (as in a perennial border), or when in competition for sun and moisture becomes too fierce (as in under a maple tree). However it will seed itself when happy, and naturalize within the competition of grasses. Upward facing cheerful blooms make a very pretty show for quite a long period in early spring.

Plan A Pretty Scene

One of the ways I like to combine these small bulbs is to have a garden with all blues, naturalized in the grassy areas and under trees. A mix of Scillas, Glory-of-the-snow, blue Muscari, are a melange of blue color spilled over the ground seeming to reflect the blue skies of spring. They make a nice background for daffodils scatter among them, too.

Anemone blanda looks best paired with tulips, and ‘White Splendour’ with ‘Red Emperor’ tulips are very striking. An early tulip, like the Emperors are important for concurrent bloom.

Eranthis hyemalis make a pool of golden yellow matched well with Snowdrops, but a bit off kilter with blue or pink flowers. Try matching up their bloom with a winter hazel shrub.

Make Spring Last A Little Longer

When most other spring bulbs are done, the Alliums appear to stretch the season into the summer full blooms. They combine well with Rue and other plants of the herb garden.

Fritillaria meleagris in moist meadow or at the verge of a moist wooded area accompanied by the ephemeral perennial plant Bleeding hearts (D. spectabilis) among ferns.

Helpful small bulb information from Cornell.

The Allium moly, Fritillaria meleagris, and Windflowers  (Anemone blanda) are mentioned in this paragraph by the renowned William Robinson who changed the face of gardens in late Victorian times.

From the classic “The Wild Garden“, by William Robinson, in the chapter on “Ditches And Narrow Shady Lanes, Copses, Hedgerows, And Thickets”… He says,

“Among the families of plants that are suitable for the various positions enumerated at the head of this chapter may be named–Acanthus, any variety, Viola, both the sweet varieties and some of the large scentless kinds, the Periwinkle, Speedwells, Globe Flowers, Trilliums, Plume Ferns (Struthiopteris), and many other kinds,

the Lily of the Valley and its many varieties and allies, the Canadian Bloodwort, the Winter Greens (Pyrola), Solomon’s Seal, and allied exotic species, the May Apple, Orobus in variety, Narcissi, many, the Common Myrrh, the perennial Lupin, hardy common Lilies, the Snowflakes,

all kinds of Everlasting-Peas and allied plants, admirable for scrambling through low hedges and over bushes.
yellow allium
Windflowers, the taller and stronger kinds in lanes and hedgerows, the various Christmas Roses which will repay for shelter, the European kinds of Gladiolus, such as Segetum and Colvilli,

the taller and more vigorous Cranes Bills (Geranium), the Snake’s Head (Fritillaria) in variety, Strawberries of any variety or species, the beautiful Plume-leaved Giant Fennel, Dog’s Tooth Violets in bare spots or spots bare in spring, the Winter Aconite, the Barren Worts, for peaty spots or leaf soil, the May Flower,

for sandy poor soil under trees, the Dentaria, the coloured and showier forms of Primroses, Oxslips, Polyanthus, the hardy European Cyclamens in carefully chosen spots, Crocuses in places under branches and trees not bearing leaves in Spring, the yellow and pink Coronilla (C. montana and C. varia), the larger forms of Bindweed,

many of the taller and finer Harebells, Starworts (Aster), for hedgerows, and among the taller plants the Italian Cuckoo Pint (Arum), and also the Dragons, for warm sandy soils,

the Monkshoods which people fear in gardens and which do admirably in many positions ; the different species of Onion, also unwelcome in gardens, some of which are very beautiful, as, for example, the White Provence kind and the old yellow garden Allium (Moly). With the above almost exclusively exotic things and our own wild flowers and ferns beautiful colonies may be made.”

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Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.