18 Stunning Bulbs to Plant This FallExpand your horizons with easy-to-grow "geophytes" that offer toughness, drought tolerance, and brilliant blooms
In the glow of autumnal foliage, with the first crisp mornings and faint wisps of frost, a gardener’s thoughts oft turn to—spring and summer. After months of salivating over catalog photos, across the country thousands of bulbs are right now being popped into the ground in anticipation of a glorious display next year. This is an act of faith, the plant lover’s version of delayed gratification.
The most familiar “bulbs” (the catchall word for what are technically termed “geophytes,” meaning “earth plants”) are those iconic plants like tulips, daffodils, dahlias, lilies, and gladioli, whose blooming is how we mark time in the garden. Some geophytes (trillium, camas, rain lily) rank among our most beloved wildflowers. Many can trace their heritage back hundreds of years. In the Netherlands, bulb growing is a centuries-old industry, but notes Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of John Scheepers, Inc., it’s more than that, it’s the very cadence of life.
For bulbs (including true bulbs, corms, rhizomes, tubers, etc.) have a distinct pattern in response to the climates of their native lands. Active and blooming when there’s moisture, in the dry, “off” times, they quietly nap, having safeguarded their survival by storing up water and sugars. This strategy typically makes them tough, drought tolerant, long-lived, and easy. As Nhu Nguyen, president of the Pacific Bulb Society, says, “They’re these surprises underground. They’re dormant, then they wake up and bloom. It’s like a present.”
And these gifts are not limited to the popular standards. There are a host of less-familiar options, including heirloom varieties that represent what landscape historian Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens, the oldest mail order heirloom bulb source in the country, calls “the diversity that is hidden in the past.” For him, the difference between the latest hot cultivar and an heirloom is like a single piece of candy compared to a full meal. For Chris Wiesinger, owner of Southern Bulb Co., the best bulbs merge beauty with scrappy functionality. Such as a clump of bright red spider lily thriving on a deserted Texas homestead, the personification of romance plus tenacity.
Everyone has their favorites, or at least, current favorites. For me, the geophytes that are most sigh-worthy might be slightly off the mainstream. Herewith is a selection of personal picks to enliven the garden-bulb repertoire.
1. Lady tulip (Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’)The original form of this cute, small-flowered tulip species is rose and white, though cultivars like ‘Lady Jane’ and yellow-and-red ‘Cynthia’ might be more available than the straight species. This perennial tulip requires fewer chilling hours to bloom compared to other tulips, so Nhu Nguyen asserts it will come back in the Mediterranean climate of the West Coast without the usual cold period needed for tulip growing. And it’s perfect for the hot South; Chris Wiesinger has had it growing in his garden near Dallas for seven years. It also grows easily in pots.
Blooms: Red and white (spring)
Zones: 3–9 (Zone 10 on the West Coast)
2. Hardy Japanese orchid (Calanthe discolor)This little pixie of a terrestrial orchid native to Japan is cold hardy to Zone 6 and tucks neatly into a woodland garden. Sprays of pert flowers, purple-brown and white to pale pink, appear in mid-spring on 10-inch stalks. Stiff pleated leaves can be evergreen to 15 degrees and form a protective “chalice” at the base of the bloom stems; if foliage starts to look tattered in winter, it can be cut back. Once the plant has had a season or two to settle into its new home, the belowground pseudobulbs will multiply to form think clumps.
Blooms: Purple-brown and white (spring)
3. Snake’s head iris (Hermodactylus tuberosus)An unusual member of the iris family (sometimes classified as Iris tuberosa), snake’s head iris has striking yellow-green standards and velvety, nearly black falls that have a high-fashion cocktail-dress allure. Native to dry slopes and rocky spots in the Mediterranean region, it sends up thin grassy foliage in early spring, followed later by the blooms. Though the leaves are taller than the flowers, they’re scrim-like and don’t block the view. Strong winds can bend the fragile flower stalks, so tuck the finger-shaped tubers into a protected spot in sun to part shade, and give them time to get established.
Blooms: Black-purple and yellow-green (spring)
4. Little white soldiers (Drimiopsis maculata)I’ve written about this plant before in Garden Design, and I continue to schlep it with me as I move. That’s how much I love this quirky bulb I bought as African false hosta at a box-store several years ago. A lily relative, Drimiopsis has slightly crinkled, spoon-shaped leaves with purple-brown spots and Muscari-like racemes of greenish-white flowers in spring. Hardy to Zone 7, it also grows well in a pot. It makes better speckles with some sunlight, filtered but not full. The bulbs readily multiply, and at my Florida home it seeded a few offspring in nearby sandy soil, and even in a crack in the sidewalk—now that’s a drought-tolerant plant.
Blooms: White (spring)
Height/Spread: 8–12”/10–12” clumps
5. Sicilian honey garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum)An onion relative also assigned to the genus Allium, this sublime but oft-overlooked bulb combines grace with whimsy. Its 3-foot stems sport baseball-size umbels of bell-shaped flowers with an antique-looking color combo of rose, cream, and gray-green. Individual buds are vertical, open flowers are pendant, and developing seedpods snake upward again, giving the plant a fun crazy-hair look. And the leaves mounded at the base have an artsy corkscrew twist. Its bloom time is perfect, appearing in the lull after the spring parade has passed and before the summer perennials are up and running. It’s also fragrant and deer resistant.
Blooms: Rose, cream, and green (late spring/early summer)
6. Scarlet or false freesia (Freesia laxa, syn. Anomatheca laxa)When I lived in Florida my friend Troy Marden gave me a tray of baby aloes he had grown from seed. Which all died. So I was startled (as was Troy) when in the empty pots emerged a plant I’d never seen before, with rich coral flowers and long, thin leaves. I discovered it to be Freesia (Anomatheca) laxa, a native of South Africa. After a couple of years flourishing in part shade, sandy soil, and complete neglect, I rounded up the little corms into one container, which I still have with me. It will flop over if the soil is too rich, so grow it lean.
Blooms: Red (late spring/early summer)
7. Pretty face (Triteleia ixioides ‘Starlight’)A cultivar of a Northwest native species formerly classified as Brodiaea ixioides, this butter-yellow form with distinctive green mid-veins dates to 1831. Narrow foliage emerges in late winter, declining just as the growing season starts, followed by the showy umbels of starry flowers. Very adaptable, pretty face can take heavy soils and baking conditions when dormant. Tuck it into a rock garden, in full sun to part shade, or combine it with other plants in the border that like dry summers. Just avoid locations that are wet in the winter or the corms will rot.
Blooms: Creamy yellow (late spring/early summer)
8. Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa ‘Rudy’)Triteleia is a genus of several Western U.S. species, closely related to the genus Brodiaea, so there is some name confusion in the market. The most familiar form of T. laxa is blue-purple ‘Queen Fabiola’ (syn. ‘Koningin Fabiola’). An exciting newer cultivar is ‘Rudy’, an effervescent bicolor, striped white and purple. Foliage emerges in late winter and fades away as the growing season gets underway, when the starry umbels of flowers come on, nodding at the ends of wiry stalks. Though perhaps more robust in West Coast gardens, I found Ithuriel’s spear to be a dainty surprise in my Nashville garden.
Blooms: White and purple (late spring/early summer)
9. Camas (Camassia leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii ‘Blue Danube’)Another testament to the lovely options among North American native plants that easily translate to the garden, the species form of this hyacinth relative hails from the West, found growing in moist slopes and meadows from British Columbia to Southern California. Another Western species is Camassia quamash, and there is an Eastern counterpart as well, C. scilloides, called wild hyacinth. All of them bloom in late spring to early summer, with starry blossoms in varying shades of blue or white that open from bottom to top. Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms waxes poetic about the arrangement of cigar-shaped bud clusters over elegant open flowers, calling them “exclamation points” in the garden.
Blooms: Blue or white (late spring/early summer)
10. Firecracker flower (Dichelostemma ida-maia)A Northwest U.S. native with a perfect common name. Umbels of bright-red tubular flowers with green, reflexed tips dangle atop 18-to-24-inch stalks in late spring and early summer. The grassy foliage appears earlier in spring and dies back as blooms emerge. After flowering, the plant goes dormant. So firecracker flower needs moisture during active growth, dry soil in summer, and moist but not wet conditions in winter. Wild looking enough to blend with other natives, it’s also elegant enough to hobnob with fancier neighbors in the border, and if sited well as far as seasonal moisture, it’s easy. Plus it’s a big draw for hummingbirds.
Blooms: Red and yellow-green (late spring/mid-summer)
11. ‘Atom’ gladiolus (Gladiolus ‘Atom’)A small glad with giant impact, the scarlet flowers are half the size of florist gladiolus blooms and delicately edged with silvery white. Its narrow form and shorter height, 2 to 3 feet at most, make it easy to find a spot for ‘Atom’ in the border, and its hot color is toned down by the frosty rim. This stunner has been popular since its introduction in 1946, and it’s a magnet for hummingbirds. Dramatic companions would be purple and blue flowers: Salvia, Nepeta, Verbena. Or plants with silvery foliage: Artemisia, Stachys. As with all glads, ‘Atom’ is a superb cut flower too.
Blooms: Red with white edge (early summer)
12. Byzantine gladiolus (Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus)A Mediterranean bulb (actually a corm) that has kept its graceful wild look, in contrast to its frou-frou cousins, those luscious glads bred for the cut-flower trade. But its orchid-like flowers are no less brilliant. Racemes of deep magenta blossoms appear in early summer alongside narrow sword-shaped leaves. Shorter and with smaller flowers, this gladiolus requires no staking. Hardy to Zone 6, so it doesn’t need to be dug and stored for winter, and will naturalize in the border. Considered an heirloom, its garden use dates back to 1629 according to Scott Kunst, who advises, if you want the true magenta Byzantine glad, don’t buy cheap corms.
Blooms: Magenta (early summer)
Zones: 6–9 (Zone 10 on the West Coast)
13. Dutch iris (Iris x hollandica ‘Eye of the Tiger’)I’m an easy mark for flowers with iridescence and a touch of brown. This bulbous iris has a glowing jewel-like quality, with electric violet-blue standards and bronzy falls. Blooming on stiff 2-foot stems in late spring and early summer, it has that verticality every garden needs. I have a penchant for pairing different types of plants that have identical coloring, and this iris partners perfectly with a pansy called Karma™ ‘Blue Butterfly’ (“like a Mini-Me,” jokes Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms). Some people use ‘Eye of the Tiger’ as an annual, but it is hardy to Zone 6.
Blooms: Violet-blue and bronze (summer)
14. Pineapple lily (Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’)There are several handsome cultivars (and nice species) of pineapple lily on the market, but ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, selected by Tony Avent’s Plant Delights Nursery in 1983, remains my favorite. Though it produces thick stalks topped with exotic pineapple-looking flowers in late summer, I’d grow it for the foliage alone. In my Nashville garden I had it planted to come up through a low mat of chartreuse sedum and it just knocked me out when those deep-wine-colored leaves emerged in spring. Usually bought as a potted plant rather than a dry bulb, it’s easy to come by.
Blooms: Cream, green, or pink (summer)
15. Nodding onion (Allium cernuum)I’ve never met an ornamental onion I didn’t like. And this dainty native, found from Canada to Mexico, holds a special place because of its dichotomous combination of ephemeral beauty and toughness. After seeing it growing wild in the challenging endangered habitat of the Cedar Glades of Middle Tennessee, I was thrilled to discover it transitions smoothly into the garden. Its lyrical common name comes from the shepherd’s crook bend in its flower scape. The bulbs underground multiply readily, and it’s easy to propagate from seed. If you don’t want it popping up about the garden, just cut off spent flower heads.
Blooms: Pink (summer)
16. ‘Boone’ gladiolus (Gladiolus x gandavensis ‘Boone’)A treasured plant I’ve carried with me as I’ve moved, I bought my ‘Boone’ originally from Dan Hinkley’s Heronswood Nursery years ago. Its demure, soft-colored flowers are like refreshing peach-lemon sorbet in the heat of midsummer. And it has a great story: discovered growing at an old homestead in the mountains near Boone, North Carolina, it probably dates to the early 1900s and was introduced under its current cultivar name by plantsman Allen Bush. I do stake ‘Boone’ just to be safe since I wait all year to enjoy its precious blooms.
Blooms: Apricot and yellow (midsummer)
17. Spider lily (Lycoris radiata) - buy now on Amazon
I first met this bulb while I worked at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville. Its sparklers of coral-red blooms popped up in the wildflower garden in the golden glow of early autumn. The cycle of spider lily seems counter intuitive: flowers in early fall, followed by strappy foliage that hunkers down during winter, dying back to dormancy in spring. In some locales severe cold can nip the leaves, making it wise to site spider lily in a protected location. Chris Wiesinger calls this a “signal” plant, telling him it’s time to plant spring-blooming bulbs.
Blooms: Red (late summer/early fall)
18. Formosa lily (Lilium formosanum)A Taiwan native, this 7-foot stunner runs counter to my usual magnetic attraction to tiny things. But I can’t imagine a border without it. My initiation was a wispy sample from Dan Heims, president of Terra Nova Nurseries. I stuck it peremptorily in the ground and thought, “OK, wow me.” And it did. It will even bloom the first year from seed. But don’t be surprised if the bulbs seem small for such a tall plant. The seedpods are upward-facing candelabras that can be left in the garden or brought indoors. Scott Kunst asserts that the presence of dried Lilium formosanum seedpods in a house attests to the presence of a true gardener.
Blooms: White (late summer/early fall)
Zones: 6b–9 (Zone 10 on the West Coast)
Get more spring gardening ideas