Primitive civilizations valued bulbs for food and medicine. Though many are poisonous, such as daffodils and hyacinths, a large number are edible, either raw (onions), cooked (dahlia tubers), or pounded into a pasty substance (elephant ears or ‘taro’-a source of poi, the Polynesian food staple). Other historic examples of bulbs produced for human use are saffron crocus for flavoring and dye, iris rhizomes used in cosmetics and scent. The planting area can be large, like this one, or small or scattered. North American Indians established tribal rights to vast meadows of camassias whose bulbs were a vital food source.
The first ornamental use of bulbs shows up in the writings of Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher (300 B.C.) in his book A History of Plants and Theoretical Botany. The attraction to bulbs among home gardeners is the ease with which they can be planted and the high probability that they will flower the following season without a lot of care. After placement, add fertilizer.
In botany, a bulb is a short stem with fleshy leaves or leaf bases  that function as food storage organs during dormancy. (In gardening, other kinds of storage organs are also called “bulbs” or “ornamental bulbs.”) The bulb is one of nature’s ingenious inventions. It enables the plants to lie dormant, withstanding long periods of harsh conditions (usually severe temperatures or dry summers) until the plants bloom again. Generally a bulb is an enlarged portion of the root or stem comprised of a storehouse of energy that is released when certain favorable conditions cause it to break dormancy. It then sprouts leaves, produces flowers, set seeds, grows bulblets, ensuring a new generation of the plant. Most bulbs require good drainage to survive year to year. Bulbs include spring, summer and autumn flowering varieties.
Many grow indoors or forced. Four Types of Bulbs True Bulbs – (tulips & daffodils) are essentially underground ‘buds’ formed by a swollen portion of stem. Each bulb has a growing point and is composed of fleshy layers like an onion. The bottom of the bulb is a disk where roots grow and can also produce bulblets producing new plants. Corms – (crocus and gladiolus) are solid. As the food supply is used up it shrivels away and is replaced by a new corm that forms on topo of the old one. Corms have a basal disk that roots emerge and produce cormlets.
Tubers – (dahlias and caladiums) are solid too. They can stem tubers but do not have a basal disk. They do produce ‘eyes’ which are buds on the surface of the tuber or concentrated near the stem section. Rhizomes – (irises and calla lilies)-are horizontal sections of swollen stem that lie on or below the ground. Buds on top of the rhizome produce new green growth, while roots develop along the underside.
Approaches To Bulb Design Naturalized: planted so as to give an effect of wild growth.
Formalized: planted so as to give an effect of composition or intent.
Potted: planted in a container/planter for seasonal color effect or cutting.
Part of larger composition: planted in effect of a broader landscape design.
Spring: Daffodils, Tulips, Hyacinths, Crocus, Ipheons, Easter Lilies, Virginia Bluebells, Snow Drops.
Summer: Asiatic Lilies, Allium, Gladiolas, Iris, Dahlias.
Fall: Crocus, Spider lily.
Bulbs purchased either through catalog orders or from local sources require fairly easy preparation and planting. They’ll produce color in the garden for long periods and for many years to come. For planting preparation, pick out your spot and plan your layout if you’re going for a formal design. You can also just scatter among existing perennial beds for a more casual garden feel. Regardless of your plan, choose locations with sun and good drainage. If planting a large bed, till the soil well and plant according to package instructions. A good rule of thumb is to dig a hole twice the depth of the height of the bulb. I recommend adding a basic 10-10-10 fertilizer or specialty bulb fertilizer, like Bulb-Tone, and then mulch over your planted area. If just planting one here and there, just dig the holes individually using a bulb planter, spade or shovel. You will just need to loosen the soil a little for the backfill. Over the course of several years, most bulbs will thrive better with division. This is a great time to share with friends and family.
Plants are often passed from generation to generation. Bulbs are included in a great many of these heritage plantings. Other tuberous plants to divide and share this season are iris and peony. Bury your treasures now to reap the bounty next spring. You will be glad you made the investment!