Grow bulbs for their foliage? Sure!

Erythronium Pagoda

Many cite the long-lasting and unsightly foliage of spring bulbs as a reason not to grow them. I have two answers for that. One is my ongoing strategy: grow the temperamental tulip hybrids that don’t perennialize as annuals. I find the pleasure they give and the fun of changing them up more than worth the cost.

But there’s another, even better, strategy. Grow bulbs for their foliage. Here are some of my favorites where the foliage is almost as striking as the flowers. Best of all, this appears very early in the spring and lasts for weeks.

The small, lily-like flowers are exquisite, but so are the glossy, mottled leaves. I wish they lasted all summer. They’re coming up now (under a thin but tedious layer of ice/snow/whatever). The Pagoda hybrid provides the showiest; natives have more mottling but aren’t as big and glossy.

This Greigii are playing nicely with the nearby Brunnera.

Greigii tulips
It depends what variety you get of these. Mary Ann and Oratorio have very marked, dramatic garnet striations. Fire of Love’s foliage is such that you’d be fine if no flowers came up at all. It’s worth shopping around among the mail order places to find other varieties—I don’t think I’ve tried them all.

Kaufmanniana tulips
I can’t vouch for these myself, but I believe some of them are known for foliage.

Darwin Hybrid Jaap Groot
Surprisingly, some of the big hybrids do have cool, white-edged foliage; this is one. We’re told this happens because of insufficient pigmentation and chlorophyll in the plant cells on the outer edges.

Viridiflora China Town

This “green” tulip has strong, white-edged, blue-green foliage that lasts a really long time. It takes quite a while for the flowers to emerge above it, and that’s fine with me.

I am so, so ready for bulb season. Really. Any day now.

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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


  1. I have hundreds of different varieties of daffodils in beds that line my front walk. I also grow very large (sun tolerant) hostas in the same beds. When the daffodil foliage is starting to look ratty the hosta foliage has grown enough to completely cover them up. This combination had worked well for me for decades.

  2. I don’t think I could do without bulbs!

    A third answer may be to grow small bulbs that provide the first splash of colour in the early spring garden and have foliage that quickly fades, such as Crocus (especially snow crocus), Chianodoxa and Scilla. Some Alliums, such as Purple Sensation, provide a later and larger burst of colour but also have leaves that very quickly fade. Another bulb with nice mottled foliage is another Allium – the short A. karataviense.

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