What spring-flowering bulbs—besides daffodils—can stand up to the rigors of being planted on roadside strips and boulevards?
Robin Lillis, Bridgewater, CT
For roadside display, choose bulbs that can tolerate the street and still put on a show.
Photo/Illustration: Allison Starcher
Becky Heath, co-owner of Brent and Becky's Bulbs, a retail mail-order bulb supplier in Gloucester, Virginia, responds: There are many bulbs other than daffodils that can be planted with confidence on roadside strips and boulevards. Finding which bulbs will perform best will depend entirely on the conditions of your site. Assess your roadside area by thinking about the conditions your plant will need to contend with. Will the bulb have to withstand a cold winter yet also tolerate summer heat and humidity? Is the soil acidic or alkaline? Is the site wet or dry? Will you be planting in full sun or shade? Also consider the effects of road salt from winter storms. For areas where traffic moves quickly, yellows, oranges, and reds are eye-catching color choices. In slower speed zones, commuters will enjoy and appreciate softer hues, especially when they’re planted with darker colors in the background. Once you’ve determined these factors, you’ll be able to find a bulb that is suited to your site while performing well for passersby. In general, the following plants work well in a variety of these conditions.
Members of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae) are, in most situations, critter-proof. One member of that elite family is summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9), which is quite adaptable to a roadside setting. Growing 12 to 18 inches tall, it performs well in either full sun or partial shade and in normal or damp soil. Its white, hanging bells are not as visible as the “55-mph-yellow-and-orange” daffodils, but on our farm, they draw lots of attention.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10), although not extremely tall (4 to 8 inches in height, depending on the species), have bulbous spikes of flowers that when massed together create quite an impact. In full sun, a combination of white, dark blue, and light blue shades of Muscari armeniacum, M. botryoides f. album, and M. armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ is an awesome sight to see.
Roadside plantings of Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum nutans, Zones 6–10) are especially vibrant when planted with dark-leaved trees, shrubs, or evergreens in the background. This silvery white heirloom grows 8 to 24 inches tall and likes full sun to partial shade.
Whether you have a sunny or a shady site, 16-inch-tall Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica and cvs., Zones 4–9) put on a show. There are lots of design possibilities with this favorite: in swirls, lines, or “rivers of blue”; in clumps of white, blue, and pink; or in a mixture of all three colors.
Where summers are dry and nights are cool, some good specimens to try are the lovely colors of the native, swaying, dancing flowers of fairy lanterns (Calochortus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–10), 4 to 20 inches tall; dichelostemmas (Dichelostemma spp. and cvs., Zones 6–10), available in various heights; and tritelias (Triteleia spp. and cvs., Zones 6–10), reaching a height of 28 inches or more.