A selection of tough little plants that give a spark of colour in the early spring garden

Iris reticulata 'Alida'

I am full of admiration for those flowering plants that can take all that winter can throw at them and emerge pretty well unscathed when the snow melts.  Here is a selection of some of the stars of the moment.

Iris reticulata

Originating from Russia and the Causasus mountains Iris reticulata comes in shades of blue through to white.  They have been flowering here at Waverley since January and are still producing good quality flowers now in late March.  Named after Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, the shot of yellow and white along the centre of the blue petals I think fits this derivation beautifully.  The species name ‘reticulata’ relates to the netted tunic which covers the bulbs and is unique to this group of Iris.

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note'
Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’

These beautiful early spring bulbs prefer sandy soils in a sunny position.  In theory, once established, they should keep coming back year after year but we have struggled to keep them going in our soil which gets rather waterlogged in the winter.  For us, they do much better in terracotta pots where we can control the drainage.  It also gives us the chance to plant the bulbs with other plants to make striking spring combinations. The blue goes particularly well with the contrasting orange crocus ‘Orange Monarch’.

Iris reticulata 'Alida' with Crocus 'Orange Monarch'
Iris reticulata ‘Alida’ with Crocus ‘Orange Monarch’ growing through a backdrop of the black leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

In preparing for this article I was interested to come across a point about planting depth in Anna Pavord’s book ‘Bulb’.  She indicates that in open ground Iris reticulata should be planted at least 10cm (4 inches) deep.  Anna suggests that this helps prevent the bulbs splitting up into masses of bulbils and so encourages the bulbs to flower again the next season.   If bulbils develop they will take at least 2 years to grow back to flowering size.  This is quite deep for a small bulb and something we might try next autumn when we come to plant the next batch.


An area of emerging spring crocus is such a lovely site.  Planted en masse, these tiny plants can be spectacular.  For us it is usually the yellow flowers that emerge first with the purple shades following later.  We plant our Crocuses mainly in grass where they can get the warmth of the spring sunshine yet the corms stay relatively dry and undisturbed throughout the summer when they are dormant.

Yellow crocus
Yellow spring crocus

The crocus is a native of Turkey and south-eastern Europe.  It is a member of the Iris family and grow from corms (rather than bulbs).    Whereas true bulbs are made up of modified leaves that store food, a corm is a modified stem which is solid and does not have rings or scales.

Spring crocus
Spring crocus

Not satisfied with crocuses in the springtime alone we also have autumn flowering crocuses planted around the garden that emerge in October/November.

Miniature daffodils

Although we love daffodils it is the miniature varieties that perform particularly well when subjected to rain, sleet, hail and snow.  Whereas the taller varieties seem to get battered down by the snow and don’t bounce back well, the miniature varieties like tête-à-tête and Jenny seem to be hardly touched by a blanket of heavy snow and emerge virtually unscathed.

Miniature narcissus
Miniature narcissus


The happy little faces of viola grace the patio pots in the garden all winter.  We tend to find that the viola flowers withstand the ravages of the winter weather much better than larger flowered winter pansies.


In the autumn we usually buy viola plug plants which we will add to our tubs when we plant them up with a lasagna of narcissus, tulips, Muscari Paradoxum Bellevalia and crocuses.  Once completed we top with the violas which will provide colour throughout the winter whilst the bulbs are developing under the soil.

When the temperatures rise and the bulbs begin to emerge the violas also start to develop providing a dense cascade of flower and foliage which softens the surface of the tubs and also hides some of the dying foliage from earlier bulbs.

Planters of tulips and viola - Late April 2011
Planters of tulips and viola – Late April 2011

Primroses and Hellebores

Last but not least we must not forget the primroses and hellebores which continue to look good despite the tough winter conditions.  We have written in previous blogs about these wonderful and fascinating plants so rather than repeating ourselves take a trip to visit these earlier articles (Primroses and springtime, Helleborus orientalis (Lenten Rose)) for more pictures and background.

Primula vulgaris
Primula vulgaris
Helleborus orientalis
Helleborus orientalis

Further reading

“Bulb” by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978-1-84533-415-4)


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