The Q&A Archives: Bulbs for Shade (Zone 5)

Question: I would like to know which bulbs I should use for a shade garden.

Answer: Most flowering plants prefer full sun, and the more hours of full sunlight the better. However there are a handful of few spring-flowering bulbs which you can plant that will do extremely well in shade.

Lilies of the Valley have clusters of small, white, bell-shaped flowers that hang from a strong reedy stalk. There may be a dozen or more blossoms per plant. Their outstanding feature is their sweet fragrance; their scent has even inspired perfumes. The best way to appreciate the fragrance is to plant Lilies of the Valley along a walkway or in raised containers which you regularly pass by.
Lilies of the Valley don't actually have bulbs. They have a rhizome (which is like a long, thin, sideways-growing, carrot-like root). The rhizome has large buds, called pips, which produce new stalks and leaves. Garden catalogues and nurseries will either sell a complete potted plant, or a package of pips, from which you can start new plants. Use the second alternative, pips, if all possible, as they are much cheaper.

Lilies of the Valley are easy to grow under most conditions, though they do best in partial shade. Once they are well rooted they will spread indefinitely by means of the underground rhizomes. They are an excellent ground cover that lasts until frost sets in. Once they are well extablished, they will form large clumps that need almost no care and live for many years.

Scilla tubergeniana, is one of the shortest of the Scillas, but shouldn't be ignored because of this. It has several excellent features:
it is the very first Scilla to come into bloom (about the same time as Snowdrops)
it will tolerate quite a bit of shade
it's the only Scilla species which is naturally white
it has a very long blooming period
it will also tolerate periods of summer drought

English Bluebells are a lovely shade of violet-blue. Each plant can produce as many as 100 bell-shaped blossoms, which have a wonderful honey fragrance. These plants naturalize very well (i.e. come back year after year, and gradually multiply).
And if all that weren't enough, they are extremely tolerant of wet soils. If you have a damp patch in your garden you didn't know what to do with, English Bluebell will grow there very happily.

Spanish Bluebells. As the name suggests, these flowers are native to Spain (and Portugal) and have beautiful blue, bell-shaped blossoms. What the name doesn't tell you is that they grow and multiply very easily, even in shade, and in almost every type of soil. What ever the opposity of "finicky" is, that is what Spanish Bluebells are. They will even grow where grass won't!
The wild variety is a violet-blue, but cultivated varietes are available in several different shades of blue, as well as pink and white.

Spanish Bluebells are among the tallest of the Scilla. Try them planted behind some of your shorter, earlier-blooming spring bulbs to extend your spring blooming season, and in the more difficult spots in your garden.

Wood Anemones. Actually these anemones don't have bulbs, they have rhizomes. These rhizomes look sort of like long, thin brown or black carrots, which you plant sideways. However, they do the job, so don't worry.

If you have a damp, shady spot in your garden that couldn't grow anything decent, Wood Anemones are the answer to your prayer. These are among the few spring flowers which actually prefer shade (or, at least, partial shade) to full sun. So, rejoice, and plant Wood Anemones!

Wood Anemones are very long-blooming: they last for about 4 - 6 weeks, and they naturalize (come back year after year and multiply) very easily.

The most commonly available anemone is the Grecian Windflower. A group of these looks like a clump of short, compact daisies. But they have several advantages over daisies: they bloom much earlier, they have very large blossoms (1 - 2 inches (2 - 5 cm) in diameter), and they come in gorgeous colours, like pink, blue, mauve, and fuschia.
One of the fantastic things about these flowers is that they bloom for a very long time: 4 to 6 weeks in most cases. They also naturalize very easily (i.e. come back year after year, and gradually multiply).

Anemones have a tuber rather than a bulb. The tuber looks like a dark, dry clump of earth. Before planting, soak the tubers in warm water for at least an hour (overnight, if possible). This gives them a head start, and they'll send out roots faster.

However, once you plant them, you can completely forget about them. Grecian Windflowers are totally undemanding, and will even self-seed, if they like the location.

Garden Snowdrop. The major benefit of planting Garden Snowdrops is their early arrival. They can show up weeks before crocuses do, and will often poke through a covering of snow. In the South, snowdrops may even bloom all winter long.
A snowdrop plant looks like three drops of milk hanging from a stem. This accounts for the Latin name Galanthus which means "milk-white flowers".

Since they are small, you probably need to plant a large number to make a dramatic effect. However, in a rock garden, or planted among other early-blooming plants like Snow Crocuses, an odd number of snowdrops here and there can be just as effective.

Siberian Squill is an ugly name for a very beautiful little flower. However, we can also refer to it as Scilla siberica, which is slightly more elegant. The colour is an intense Prussian blue, and it has three to five star-shaped blossoms suspended from each stem.
Not only is the flower lovely, the plant is incredibly hardy: it really does grow in Siberia. It is also one of the very best bulb plants for naturalizing (i.e. it will not only come back year after year, it will gradually increase and multiply). Some varieties have a fragrance.

Best wishes with your new shade loving plants!

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