Spring bulbs: hybrid, species, or native?


Over at Transatlantic Plantsman, Graham Rice rants about Hideous Daffodils, bemoaning the lack of native daffodil plantings in his native land. Instead, all he sees are the large-flowered hybrids.(I don’t know how he kept himself from quoting Wordsworth’s “I wander’d lonely as a cloud.” Such discipline.) I’m feeling your pain, Graham, but in my case, I’d like to see more species tulips, which, like Narcissus pseudonarcissus, are smaller and blend better with their neighboring plants (though of course, they’re not natives). I have been using these for some years now and, unlike most hybrids, they pop up regularly, delighting with their unusual forms and color patterns, their unobtrusive foliage, and their ability to naturalize. They aren’t wildflowers, but they have that informality.

I know many who have given up on tulips because the plants don’t act like other perennials, coming back bigger and better each season. Hybrid tulips kind of do the opposite: they decline after a year or so, particularly when the conditions are not ideal. Hybrid tulips=annuals in my gardening practice; I plant them in containers and raised beds and compost them without a qualm when they’re done. It’s not for everyone.

My favorite is probably T. acuminata, but for naturalization, the winner has to be T. turkestanica, a multi-flowered type that cheerfully thrives in the unfriendly conditions of my front yard. Some of the clusianas are hybrids, but they have kept all the charm of their wild origins. Finally, these come up at all different times; acuminata is still up in mid-May. (Many of these might more accurately be called heirlooms, not species, if you want to be picky.)

As for daffodils, some comments on the Rice site accused him of elitism. In America, many public daffodil plantings are by volunteers with donated bulbs—such altruism is admirable; I’ve planted bulbs en masse myself and it’s not exactly tons of fun. The big daffodils don’t bother me that much, but I rarely use them in my garden; they’re too big for the space and if I don’t find the flowers hideous, the foliage sure is—as it dies back for years. Here again, miniature hybrid and species daffs can come to the rescue.

I don’t know too much about native American bulbs, but even I go wild over a truly spectacular wildflower like Lilium Canadense, which, unfortunately, seems to be virtually unavailable. Old House Gardens used to have it. And then there are the various erythroniums (trout lily)—gorgeous flowers and foliage, and grown all too rarely around here.

Bulbs of any kind make the short, brutish Northeastern spring worthwhile.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. With regard to native American flowers, if you don’t already know about Camassia Quamash, check it out, a lovely plant that is suited for a wide variety of conditions, but seems to enjoy sunny wet meadow areas best– perfect for rain gardens and near the bottom of swales.

  2. Could you provide a good source for T. turkestanica? I’ve read they work well for wet winter, dry summer climates like we have in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  3. An awesome native lily is the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense), especially if you have a soggy site. I know Plant Delights carries it. It’s a good, reliable native for most of the eastern U.S.

  4. Kathy, most of the species tulips require more winter chill than we have in the bay area — supposedly. Their requirements are more like Summer dry, Winter frozen solid, Spring undewater. That said, Odyssey bulbs is the best commercial source for species tulips I know of:

    Anyone interested in native bulbs needs to read Bulbs of N. America, ed. Jane McGary, Timber Press. OP but recently remaindered.

  5. Kathy,

    Brent and Becky’s has pre-chilled bulbs for higher zones. And they are a great source for Turkestanica.

    Caveats: I don’t know how well the whole pre-chilling thing works, or if they offer it for all bulbs.

    But I chill some of my bulbs to force them inside and it works fine.

  6. My wife wisely planted species tulips, species daffodils and species crocuses in our front yard and the come up like champs every spring without fail. I especially like the idea of species crocuses seeding themselves and appearing like a full-blown symphony orchestra across the lawn.

  7. I’ll echo what Colleen said – Lilium michiganense is very similar to the Canada Lily, and is listed by the USDA Natural Resources site as endangered in New York. You can also check out Prairie Restorations in Minnesota (www.prairieresto.com, which has them for less than 1/2 the price of Plant Delights. I just don’t know if they ship.

  8. I’ve just posted about tulipa turkestana on my site and here I see lovely photos her as well.
    First year I have grown it and I am smitten.
    Will it naturalise in grass do you think?

  9. Turkestanica is practically invasive. I think it would thrive pretty much anywhere.

    Though the warmer zones have issues with tulips, as we’ve discussed.

  10. “A host of golden daffodils”? Just after I posted my Hideous Daffodils rant, I heard on BBC radio that a swish hotel in Wordsworth country was in a panic. The spring had come so early that all the Wordsworthian daffodils were over before the tourists arrived. Help! Vast profits threatened by unseasonable weather (or perhaps by global warming)!

    So, what did they do? They planted thousands of plastic daffodils so the visitors wouldn’t be disappointed.

    So that’s how we cope with climate change…

  11. Does anyone know of a native Kentucky bulb? ie) Mariposa lily (Calochortus) or Camassia, camas or quamash (Camassia). These are native to the US, I just do not know if they are native to Kentucky.

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