a narcissus and a bluebell that play well in shade

ILOVE THE OPPORTUNISTS AMONG BULBS–the beauties that ask only enough full sun to get up and growing each year, develop their foliage and finish flowering, and then will do with dappled shade. I grow some snowflakes (Leucojum) that way, and extra-early little Eranthis hyemalis (the winter aconite), and even lots of big Narcissus under my old apple trees. Then friends turned me on to a couple of other charmers that have found similar homes here in recent years: a Spanish bluebell called ‘Excelsior,’ above, and a little daffodil called ‘Hawera.’

Hyacinthoides hispanica, or Spanish bluebells, used to be called Scilla, and also Endymion. I have some mixed colors (pink, white, pale blue) acquired by those names growing in quite-shady spots from eons ago, where they have just carried on with virtually no care. Lately, though, I wanted to make more of a deliberate show, and ‘Excelsior’ (a nice blue), at about 15 inches high, came highly recommended.

Other Spanish bluebell plusses: Animals don’t eat them, they can tolerate a fair amount of shade, are very hardy (Zones 3-8), naturalize well (meaning they multiply and persist, so keep that in mind when placing them), and as mentioned require no care.

narcissus hawera 2

The scaled-down Narcissus above called ‘Hawera’ (Zone 4-9) is animal proof (like all daffodils) and naturalizes easily, too. Each 6-to-8-inch-high stem produces multiple fragrant pale yellow nodding flowers with tiny cups. Its delicate stature is deceptive; this is one tough little bulb, and adapts to part shade or sun. Last fall I put a mass of them under a weeping kousa dogwood, and another under some old lilacs, and spring was happier this year for the additions.

There Are Limits: Planting Under Trees

JUST TO BE CLEAR: I don’t mean you can grow even these most cooperative things in the total darkness, or under a forest of ancient conifers or oaks, where there is no chance of their getting established—or getting a drink or nutrients because of such dense roots that have already staked out the terrain and sucked up all its resources. Don’t waste your bulbs in such spots. I’m talking about a bright woodland garden of dogwoods, for instance, or under a magnolia or under a crabapple or some shrubs, perhaps.

The other obstacle to working among very established trees: the process of planting itself. An earth auger may be needed to make bulb-sized holes where there are roots to contend with, but under the kinds of garden-sized trees and shrubs I mention, I can usually pocket-plant with a trowel, small spade (a transplanting or poaching spade, as they are sometimes called) or if you prefer, a bulb planter—which is one tool that I do not own, truth be told.

Under no circumstances should you ever add soil or a raised bed over the root system of a tree or shrub in order to accommodate bulbs or other plants; you will suffocate the woody thing.

Bulbs I Have Tried in Light to Medium Shade

  • Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite)
  • Hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells)
  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebells)
  • Erythronium (trout lily)
  • Fritillaria meleagris (guinea hen flower)
  • Crocus
  • Galanthus (snowdrops)
  • Lilium (including superbum or Turk’s cap, martagon types, and others)
  • Narcissus (daffodils)

Keeping Bulbs Happy

MY BULB FAQ PAGE has some hints about keeping bulbs happy, and what to do if flowering starts to diminish from root competition or simply too dense a shade cover. Better to actually follow the steps ahead of time—feeding when the foliage emerges, watering well during active growth, thinning the canopy a bit judiciously, divide as needed—than to let them falter and be faced with CPR, you know?

  1. Marie says:

    For the past week,I have been walking past a box of 200 daffodil bulbs that is sitting on my John Deere, pretending not to notice them. It is a large box. I put it there after signing for it. It is kinda hard to ignore.

    Two Hundred Daffodils.


    OK. I was thinking Spring! Yellow! Cheerful! Deer-proof!

    But now I’m thinking 200 holes I have to dig. 200 daffodils that I can’t mow once the blooms have faded. 200 bulbs that must be put in the ground in the next week or so. 200 decisions to make.

    Where am I going to put 200 daffodils?

    And you just helped me decide!

    I’ll put them around the dogwoods, crab apples and thundercloud plums that border the 100 year-old cemetery that sits at the bottom of our property. They’ll be absolutely lovely!

    Thank you!

  2. You are right about Hawera. It is a wonderful little narcissus that does quite well in the shade of my 100′ white oak. ‘Barrett Browning’ is another great daf for the shade.
    I’ve also discovered that the rainlily ‘LaBuffarosa’ is a reliable bloomer in the shade. It has some Mexican parentage and I think it’s hardy to zone 6.

  3. JC says:

    The flowers are so beautiful and flourishing well. I love the bright sun, the tree and the flowers!!

    I have invited you for “The 10 Things I Love To Do” Game. Do visit My Sunny Happy Garden blog to proceed on this game. Enjoy!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Yardflower. Thanks for those other variety names — off to look them up!

      Welcome, JC. What an interesting trip I just had to your blog — that gift of seeds that you received was quite fantastic. Nice friend to share it like that!

      See you both soon again.

  4. Burndett Andres says:

    Ditto on the Spanish Bluebells. They’re the tops! Resilient and a beautiful shade of blue in addition to blooming earlyish here along the Maine coast. We popped them in among the later-blooming perennials where the foliage can die back without being noticed. In late spring/early summer when they are emerging, this spot gets part sun and they’re thriving.

  5. Darrel Schoeling (Longitude Books) says:

    Next year then, for Hawera! The deer eat the Leucojum and bluebells don’t seem to thrive but I’ve been putting in daffodils for years on a wooded slope. This year it’s another 100 Jack Snipe along the drive, a bunch of February Gold somewhere, Minnow in the rock garden — and as a test 100 of a triandus called Thalia. The larger varieties tend to get flattened with the weather. We’ve got nothing but rocks and shade and I just find a spot to get in a spade and toss a handful of bulbs in behind. Thanks for all the attention to those of us with shade and deer in the Hudson Valley.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Darrel. I love Thalia — one of my oldest favorites. Good choice. Nice of you to say hello, and hope to hear of your adventures again soon.

  6. Deborah says:

    I also love leucojum for its tolerance of wet soil. I have Gravetye Giant leucojum in my wet front flower bed among the willows, chokeberries and swamp azalea. It’s been there for years and thriving despite the constant moisture. Camassia is another bulb that is great for wet areas. I have it under my winterberries and also in front of some Japanese irises.

  7. Sharon says:

    I too admire the hardiness of Spanish Bluebells. One year, my diligent garden helper thought the shoots were weeds, and carefully tried to dig them up, thinking he had gotten the roots (as he knows he should!). I was stunned at the time, and then stunned two years later to see them return! Another year after that, and they were blooming again. Now THAT’s hardy.

  8. Lisabeth Davis says:

    Aabout 25 years ago, I raised the soil level around a nonbearing mulberry (a ubiquitous shade tree in the arid southwest) about 18″. It was still alive last time I saw it. Given the way they are butchered when pruned by most people, it is possible they cannot be killed!

    We use an iron digging bar to plant bulbs in my new garden because it is all on virgin alluvial soil – great dirt surrounding boulder and rocks rounded smooth by a river. I always forget how hard it is to dig when I place my order every year! Scilla siberica are doing very well and I am eager to see if any tulips return – we have so many gophers that I sometimes plant them surrounded by chicken wire.

  9. Angela says:

    This is a fantastic idea. I’ve been looking for just the right combination of bulbs for my shade garden, but everything I’ve tried has been too fickle to establish. Will get some Narcissus/Sp Bluebells in and see how it fares. Thank you!

  10. Marilyn says:

    Margaret — Above, you said you have planted both the Spanish and English bluebells in light to medium shade (hispanica and non-scripta), but I can’t find anywhere else that you mention the English ones to discuss their performance. Brent and Becky’s bulbs catalog says the English ones are very fragrant, which to me would be a plus. Why doesn’t anyone mention the English ones? Are they just not as easy to find or buy? Less vigorous? Shorter? Or are the Spanish ones just as fragrant? I saw a lovely spread of bluebells in May at the NYBG under tall trees — absolutely lovely! Hope I can re-create that here in Raleigh, NC.

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