Standing tall Don't limit your spring garden to tulips and daffodils. A variety of lesser-known bulbs delivers beauty in a big way.

October 12, 1997|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bulbs are the backbone of the spring garden. From the earliest snow crocus peeking shyly out from under a mulch of leaves on a late February afternoon to the luminous beauty of a Darwin tulip like 'Blushing Lady,' it is a rare property that does not celebrate the end of winter by looking forward to crocuses, daffodils and tulips.

But why stop there?

A wealth of other, lesser-known flowers also exist to populate the springtime. The astonishing variety of bulbs, corms and rhizomes can lend additional personality and pizazz to your garden, as well as an extended blooming season. All can be planted now through the middle of November.

One beautiful choice is the show-stopping giant allium, Allium giganteum, schubertii and albopilosum.

Onions, garlic and chives are in the same family, but don't let this distant family relationship fool you. Giant alliums have about as much visual relationship to a kitchen onion as a blimp has to a model airplane.

You might start, for instance, by imagining an exquisite chive flower, made up of thousands of tiny, soft individual florets, each no larger than a pencil nib. Instead of a diameter of three-quarters of an inch, expect 10 inches.

Now put this wondrous bloom on top of a 2- to 5-foot stem, rising in majestic and solitary splendor far above anything else in the spring garden.

A group of these luminous, purple balls suspended over the garden never fails to make people stop and stare. Even one will provide quite a show as an accent point.

If this was the only thing giant alliums had to offer, it might seem enough. But like all members of the onion family, they are tough and versatile.

For one thing, their bloom time is gratifyingly long, from at least two weeks to more than a month, depending on the weather. Most bloom in May, although A. giganteum has the charming habit of flowering in July.

Additionally, alliums make wonderful, long-lasting cut flowers of such soft radiance that it is difficult not to go about petting them as if they were great, lavender poodles.

Giant alliums naturalize well in this area (zones four through nine), and require no more care than any other hardy bulb.

They also come in different styles and colors. Allium 'Purple Sensation' is a deep, ruby color. A. rosenbachianum, a paler, slightly smaller version, comes with a white frosting on its tips. A schubertii, while lacking the dense florets of other varieties, makes up for it by looking like a frozen fireworks star caught in mid-burst -- and it's a dazzling 15 inches in diameter.

While some of these may take a little searching to find, the classic A. giganteum is normally available through garden catalogs and at local garden centers.

For those interested in unusual but more easily located bulbs, there are many choices.

One of the earliest bloomers are snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis. These flowers are hardy little things, naturalize happily and usually bloom even before the snow crocus. They do well in a lawn, and their foliage has normally died back by the time of first grass mowing.

Greek windflowers, Anemone blanda, are also nice, early flowers that resemble small Michaelmas or African daisies. They come in shades of white, violet and aster-blue and keep blooming for four to six weeks. They naturalize easily and are appropriate for sunny, steep slopes that have a low-growing ground cover. Such ground cover can look rather shopworn at the end of winter, as many of the creeping carpet junipers often do.

For those with damp, shady gardens who may despair of a showy bulb display, three possible choices are white Indian hyacinth, Camassia leichtlinii 'alba,' Fritillaria persica and wood hyacinths. The Indian hyacinth has finely cut white flowers on 3-foot stems that seem to glow in the shade in May.

Fritillaria persica is not like its more well-known cousin, the checkered fritillaria. Instead, it is tall (30-36 inches), with campanula-like, velvety, purple bells that bloom in mid-spring. It makes an excellent cut flower.

Wood hyacinths (Scilla campanulata) are the Spanish cousins of English bluebells, but have the added attraction of coming not only in blue, but white and pink as well. A carpet of these under May flowering trees is a delightful sight and can serve double duty by covering up the remains of earlier daffodil and jonquil foliage.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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