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Alternatives to Traditional Bulbs

Jennifer NicholsField Notes

Most gardeners know that fall is the time to plant bulbs. Daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips planted in the fall will reward gardeners that plan ahead with some of the first blooms of spring.

As an environmental landscape designer and a proponent of using native plants, I have to admit, these spring flowering bulbs are one of the exceptions to a strictly native plant pallet that I find easy to make. They also make me wonder, are there native bulbs that we can use in addition to these tried and true performers?

The answer is, of course, yes… Actually, the real answer to every landscape question is, it depends. All landscaping decisions should be site specific, choosing plants that will be happy with existing cultural conditions and fit the space while meeting design goals. Given that, let’s explore some native bulbs that may fit into your landscape.

Spring Beauty ephemeralSpring Beauty (Claytonia virginiana): A wonderful little gem to grace a shade garden, spring beauty will form low colonies of small, white to pink flowered plants. As spring warms to summer, Spring Beauty goes dormant, so they are great to use with other woodland plants that will fill their spot. Claytonia appreciates part sun to shade, and moist, well-drained soil.

Trout LilyTrout Lily (Erythronium americanum): With pretty mottled leaves (resembling a brook trout) and small yellow lily-shaped flowers, I was delighted to find a group of Trout Lily in the woods below my house one spring. If you are not quite so lucky, Trout Lily is beginning to be available in the trade. A spring ephemeral like Claytonia, Erythronium is best planted in woodland conditions with plants that will fill in after they go dormant.


Dwarf Crested IrisDwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata): I have no idea why this plant is not in every garden with the right conditions. A miniature iris about 8 inches tall, it blooms blue or white on clean foliage which forms a nice mass with great texture. Plant it in morning sun or full shade with moist but not wet soil.


Virginia BluebellVirginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica): Although naturally occurring along streams and in moist woods, Virginia Bluebells are quite at home in many garden settings. With large gray-green leaves, and pink buds that open to true blue flowers on 12-18” stems, Virginia Bluebells can stand up to any tulip or daffodil. Plant Mertensia in part shade with moist soil and find out why it is one of America’s favorite wildflowers.


Bloodroot in bloomBloodroot (Sanquinaria canadensis): A beautiful wildflower with an unfortunate name, bloodroot is one of the first woodland plants to bloom. Although its white flowers with yellow centers soon fade, the emerging foliage is quite attractive, and will last until fall making Bloodroot one of the plants that pairs nicely with spring ephemerals.
Although all of these plants are garden worthy, they may not be easy to find in your local garden center. If you ask, many garden centers will order them for you, or you can check the following sources:

Redbud Native Plant Nursery
Glen Mills, Pennsylvania
(610) 358-4300

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs
Glouster, Virginia
(804) 693-3966

Sunshine Farm and Gardens
Renick, West Virginia
(304) 497-2208
So as you plant traditional bulbs this fall with hopes of a beautiful spring garden next year, consider something unusual, our native spring wildflowers.