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.
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)
- 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?