Often overlooked in landscape plans and on retail shelves, bulbs offer benefits unparalleled by other plants. Why bulbs? The question should be: Why not?

Imagine spring without tulips. Or daffodils. Or beautiful blue carpets of Siberian squill. Oh, there’d be a bit of blooming color; some forsythia, perhaps, or a few early-blooming magnolias that survived a premature warm spell followed by that cold snap.

But for reliable, breathtaking, sometimes curious color, nothing beats bulbs. They’re not often an easy sell, primarily because it’s difficult for anyone to look at a bare bulb and conjure up the image of a beautiful, blooming plant. There’s an intriguing secret, though, that can become a major selling point: A bulb is a promise.

Crocus emerges long before other plants begin to awake.
Photos: Getty Images/iStockphoto, unless otherwise noted

It’s what’s inside that counts

In our gotta-have-it-now society, it has become ever more difficult to explain where plants come from. Customers are drawn to varieties that are already in bloom—give us color!—and it’s not easy to sell a pot of leaves, let alone a strange, crinkly nugget.

Pollinators are attracted to a number of bulbs, including crocus.

But the flower bulb is actually a neat little package that holds everything the plant needs to develop into a highlight of the garden, including the flower bud, fleshy scales that provide nutrients, a basal stem and roots. It’s all covered by a papery tunic that cloaks the bulb’s scales and protects the whole bundle. So that oddly shaped capsule—that ugly little duckling—actually contains the entire swan.

It’s understandable, however, that bulbs can be overlooked once they’re in the ground and there’s nary a hint of the plant-to-be. That is, until months later when the first leaves begin to emerge. Bulbs may not look like much when they’re planted, but they keep their promise and emerge to become colorful heralds of spring. Consider them “prepackaged”—which is just what the modern consumer wants.

So let’s explore a few reasons why bulbs should be featured in your plant palette.

Browsing pests will avoid most bulbs, especially the beautiful but bitter daffodil (Narcissus).

Selling spring

Jill Selinger, manager of continuing education at the Regenstein School at the Chicago Botanic Garden and instructor of the school’s hardy bulbs course, says there are countless reasons why bulbs should receive more attention. Chief among them is the fact that bulbs signal spring long before other plants even begin to awake.

“You can sell the benefit of having earlier beauty in the garden,” she says. Fragrance and color—even the simple green of bulbs’ foliage—are strong selling points when trees are still barren and there’s a layer of snow on the ground.

Hyacinth offers a distinct, heady fragrance that is the very signature of spring.

Extend the season of bloom

Once early spring bulbs have blossomed, other perennials and flowering shrubs may begin their display. But your clients’ gardens can maintain color longer if you’ve planted for sequential bloom. When properly staggered throughout the garden, early-, mid- and late-blooming tulips, for example, will display brilliant color from March through late May or even beyond.

And fall bulbs, planted in spring or summer for an autumn show, bring the cycle of color back around. Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), for example, pops up just about the time most leaves are falling. It’s related to the spring-blooming crocus and looks remarkably like its relative, but is larger and appears after its foliage as long-since died back.

Attract pollinators

We may not normally think of blooming bulbs as attractive to bees; maybe that’s because we’re seeing fewer bees these days. But your customers and clients can get a jumpstart on attracting pollinators by planting any of a number of bulbs that provide these little beasts an early treat.

Selinger recommends Tommy crocus (Crocus tommasinianus), among the first spring blooms to emerge. In her yard, these early flowering plants are “humming with bees” long before other pollinators begin to flower.

Muscari (grape hyacinth), tulips and daffodils also attract honeybees, and if they’re planted in succession for sequential bloom (see above), these spring bulbs can continue to support pollinators for weeks on end.

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Add fragrance

For those who live in the colder regions, spring is eagerly awaited for a number of reasons: release from cabin fever, lower heating bills, a chance to get out in the garden. And after a long winter of stale indoor air, the fresh fragrance of spring is irresistible.

Few flower fragrances can compete with the intoxicating Hyacinth. Ranging from spicy strong to sweetly subtle, the unmistakable scent is a signature of spring. The smaller (and unrelated) grape hyacinth also provides a subtle scent, especially if planted en masse.

A number of Narcissus varieties (daffodil) offer spicy scents; in particular, ‘Thalia’, ‘Geranium’ and ‘Actaea’ can be real knockouts. Tulips, as well, provide their own perfume. Favorites include ‘Angelique’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Calgary’ and ‘Princess Irene’.

Keep deer at bay

Finally, browsing pests, such as deer, tend to ignore bulbs. Selinger says that deer avoid any of the bulbs in the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), which includes snowdrop (Galanthus), snowflake (Leucojum) and daffodil. Daffodils in particular are toxic to many animals; in fact, every part of the plant that appears above ground is off limits for consumption. It carries the alkaloid lycorine, which can cause gastric upset, as well as calcium oxalate crystals.

Selinger also points out that, while squirrels and mice tend to appreciate crocus, they’re not particularly fond of Crocus tommasinianus.

Bulbs need not be relegated to bins at the back of the store or the requisite line of tulip soldiers. There is much to recommend them. Share these tips with your clients and customers and you’ll enhance their gardens as well as increase your working palette.

Sally Benson is the editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com.