Springtime Blues: Blue Flowers

Ever-cheery Scilla siberica and other early spring bulbs blanket the ground in beautiful blue.

Credit: John Glover


Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Ever-cheery Scilla siberica and other early spring bulbs blanket the ground in beautiful blue

As a boy in England, I used to visit an aunt who was a maid at a large country home. I often cycled there on Sundays to have lunch with her, and in February and March we would wander the grounds, down woodland walks carpeted with heavenly blue flowers. These, I soon learned, were a mixture of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), most likely the cultivar known as ‘Spring Beauty,’ and the more airy Chionodoxa forbesii, often referred to as glory of the snow because of its early flowering time.

Scilia ibericaScilla siberica

Scilla siberica is one of the hardiest bulbs around. As its name suggests, it is native to Siberia and throughout the eastern sections of the former Soviet Union. This bulbous perennial sends up four to five broadly linear basal leaves (up to 10 to 15 centimetres in length), plus two or three flower stems, each ranging from 10 to 20 centimetres in height. The stems lengthen with age over the four-week flowering period. Each stem has four or five pendent, bell-shaped, bright-blue flowers each measuring 1.5 centimetres across and offering an extremely showy display. The hardiness of S. siberica is a definite plus in our province. I have seen them growing happily in Winnipeg, so they are perfect candidates for northern British Columbia gardens. Chionodoxa forbesii, often confused with C. luciliae, is another perennial bulb. It sends up several erect to spreading strap-like leaves up to 20 centimetres long and three or more flowering stems up to 15 centimetres in length. The stems bear racemes of four or five bright-blue star-shaped flowers with white centres, each measuring about one to two centimetres across. These beauties are native to higher elevations of Turkey and Greece, and I have been lucky enough to see them growing under the shade of scrubby bushes at the edge of melting snowbanks in the mountains of Crete. Both of these bulbs look wonderful naturalized in grassy areas, especially under or around early spring-blooming shrubs. I once saw a carpet of squills under a large Magnolia x soulangeana in a garden in upstate Ohio. Some gardeners resist the idea of planting bulbs in a lawn simply because the grass has to be left unmown for the first six weeks or so of spring, to allow time for the leaves to die back naturally. However, if the lawn is mown fairly low on the last cut of fall, this should not present a problem. And by leaving the bulbs to set seed amongst the longer grass, they will multiply over the years, rewarding you with carpets of blue early every spring for years to come. One last tip: plant the drifts of early bulbs in an area of the lawn or garden that can be viewed through a window from a favourite chair in your house, and their early smiling flowers will lift your spirits. While looking through some books on Scilla and Chionodoxa I discovered that there has been a successful cross of the two, resulting in x Chionoscilla allenii, which apparently occurred as a natural hybrid. From its picture it looks to be extremely floriferous. However, I think bulbs of this one are difficult to find – always challenging words to a gardener.

Scilia peruvianaScilla peruviana

Although they bloom a little later in the year (April) than Scilla and Chionodoxa, English and Spanish bluebells both deserve a mention in this piece as notable spring blues. Before they were reclassified, these bluebells were known as Scilla non-scripta and Scilla hispanica, but both are now classified as Hyacinthoides. Over the years, especially in older home gardens, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) have been mistakenly called English bluebells. The Spanish species, originally native to North Africa, Spain and Portugal, is a rather robust perennial that can overtake a border or whole garden. It is bulbous, quickly forming large clumps of strap-shaped leaves in spring and reaching 20 to 40 centimetres in length. Several stout flower stems, 30 to 40 centimetres long, produce racemes of pale-blue, bell-shaped flowers that have slightly reflexed tips and pale-blue anthers. The flowers occur all around the tip of the stem, much like hyacinths, but not as densely packed. The flowers are not scented, but quite showy. To prevent them from seeding themselves about and taking over the whole garden, remove the flowerheads with pruners immediately after they finish flowering. There is an old garden not far from where I live in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood that is a solid pale-blue haze of Spanish bluebells underneath native flowering dogwoods. Quite a breathtaking sight. The English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) is a little less invasive and the bulbs are a little harder to find. Its bulbs send up narrow linear leaves that are a rich green, reaching 20 to 45 centimetres long. The flower stems reach around 30 to 40 centimetres and have slightly curved racemes of bright-blue, scented flowers with lovely, curved, reflexed tips. English bluebells also lend themselves well to naturalizing under deciduous trees and do not seem quite as vigorous as their Spanish cousins. The scent of them wafting on a spring breeze is delightful. They seem to require a good leaf mould-type soil found in deciduous woodlands. So if you have access to lots of boulevard leaves in fall, rake them up and half fill a plastic garbage can with them. Then pop in the weed-whacker and give it few whirls until the leaves have all been ground up. Add this to the soil at planting time in the fall and your English bluebells will be very happy. One other gorgeous blue scilla deserves a mention here – plus a slightly more protected spot in your garden. It is Scilla peruviana, whose name suggests that it comes to us from Peru. However, a theory exists that the bulbs were delivered to botanist Carolus Clusius at Leiden, Holland, in 1607 on a freighter named The Peru. Somehow, the collection records stating that the bulbs originated from Spain were lost. Hence, the mistaken name derived from its carrier, not its origin. Apparently, this bulb is now naturalized in parts of Peru, which further confuses the story! If you have well-drained soil and a sunny spot in your garden, say a warm pocket against a rock in an alpine garden, or a narrow foundation planting bed under the eaves of a south- or west-facing wall, try this gem of a plant. Its bulbs are quite large and the basal clump of 15 or so linear leaves reaches up to 60 centimetres in length. The leaves generally start to appear in the fall, as the old ones gradually dry up from the heat of summer. The flower stems, appearing in late spring to early summer, are conical racemes of 50 to 100 star-shaped bright-blue flowers, each 1.25 centimetres across. They bloom in circular succession from the base upward over four to six weeks and are extravagantly showy. It must be noted, however, that they are only hardy in zones 8 to 9 and most definitely need a well-drained, sunny spot in your garden. If you love blue flowers as much as I do, I hope you will plan to enjoy a host of these charming springtime bloomers in your own garden this year. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Chionodoxa forbsii (glory of the snow) – zone 4 • x Chionoscilla allenii – zone 3 • Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebell) – zone 4 • Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebell) – zone 4 • Scilla peruviana – zone 8 • Scilla siberica (Siberian squill) – zone 4 David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV. Photos: John Glover: Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Scilla peruviana, Scilla siberica