By Kim Hilgers
Horticulture Graduate Student
Iowa State University Extension
We’ve all experienced it – the frustration of planting tulips in the fall with anticipation of spring blooms – only to find that they have become fodder for furry fiends. Crocus and lilies are often disturbed or eaten as well. There are various methods to prevent animals from digging or eating spring bulbs, but you can save some effort by selecting bulbs that are less palatable. While we would like to claim that the following bulbs are rabbit, deer or rodent-proof, the unpredictability of such wildlife forces us to say they are simply your best bets.
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are an old favorite that are long-lived and naturalize well in the landscape. They come in several flower shapes and color combinations of yellow, white, orange and pink. Daffodils range from 4 to 24 inches in height. Most bloom in early spring, prefer partial to full sun and are cold-hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9. As with all bulbs, be sure to allow the foliage to die back or yellow naturally before removing as they need time to replenish energy reserves in the bulbs.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are 4 to 6 inch tall plants with white, nodding flowers in late winter to early spring. They can be found in single or double flower forms and do well in partial to full shade in Zones 3-9. The bulbs are small, so plant them in groups of a dozen or more.
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) makes a cheerful addition to the late winter/early spring landscape with its bright yellow, buttercup-like blooms. The flowers sit atop a collar of green leaves on 2 to 4 inch tall plants. They are great for mass plantings in partial shade in zones 4-9. Because they are one of the first bulbs to bloom, their foliage dies back quickly.
Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) are very similar in flower form to snowdrops, but bloom a little later from early to mid-spring and are a bit larger at 6 to 12 inches tall. They prefer partial to full sun and are hardy in Zones 4-8. Both snowflakes and snowdrops naturalize well in the landscape and work well under deciduous trees and shrubs.
Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) is also very early to bloom as the name suggests. It is a dainty plant only 4 to 6 inches tall with upward-facing, star-shaped flowers. The blooms are most often bright blue, but can also be white or pink. They do best in full sun in Zones 3-9.
Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) grows 4 to 6 inches tall with nodding blue flowers in early spring. It is another small but colorful bulb that naturalizes well and looks stunning in large masses. Plant them in full sun to part shade in Zones 2-7.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) produce dense clusters of urn-shaped, purple to blue flowers that resemble clusters of grapes. The flowers also come in pink and white and a double form. The flower spikes are 6 to 8 inches tall and bloom in mid-spring. These vigorous bulbs prefer full sun and are hardy in Zones 2-9. Once established, the grass-like foliage may appear in fall as well as alongside the blooms in spring.
Hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) are available in a spectacular range of colors including white, pink, red, blue, purple, peach, and yellow. Clusters of highly fragrant tubular flowers are borne on 8 to 12 stems in mid-spring. They do well in full to part sun. While the bulbs are hardy to Zone 4, flower performance declines rapidly. It is recommended that they be replanted every 2 to 3 years.
Fritillaries (Fritillaria spp.) vary greatly by species in size, form, color, bloom time and cold hardiness. They can be 12 inch tall like the spring blooming guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris) with unique purple checkered blooms, or 2 to 3 feet tall like the crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). Crown imperial blooms in early summer with nodding clusters of orange or yellow flowers topped with a crown of green leaves. The unpleasant musky odor of the bulbs and blooms keeps away both humans and animals. So admire these from afar. Most fritillaries do well in full sun to part shade.
Ornamental onions (Allium spp.) bloom in late spring to early summer depending on the species or variety. They range in height from 6 inches to 4 feet and come in purple, pink, white and yellow. Flower forms can vary as well but typically consist of round clusters of star-shaped flowers atop tall stems like the popular Giant Allium (A. giganteum) or Stars of Persia (A. christophii). Most prefer full sun and are hardy in Zones 4-10.
With fall quickly approaching, now is the time to purchase spring-blooming bulbs. Many of these bulbs can be found at your local garden center or ordered through specialty catalogs, many of which offer online sales as well.