Hesitant to plant bulbs for your clients, only to see them lost to hungry squirrels? Try these less-than-tasty crocuses for better results this year.
Teach squirrels to "look but don't touch" with varieties of Crocus vernus that are bitter and unpleasant. Photo: Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center
When crocuses pop up, we know spring is near. Colorful, low-growing crocuses cheer the soul after a barren winter. Crocuses are also feisty flowers, endowed by nature with a redundant system of replication that makes them natural survivors and easy multipliers. Once established, beds of crocus can come back to bloom each spring for decades.
It all sounds excellent unless you’re dealing with squirrel-prone landscapes.
Those bushy-tailed rodents that some find cute, but gardeners find contrary, love to munch on crocus bulbs. The most common crocuses, various hybrids of Crocus vernus, are especially toothsome to squirrels. Gardeners employ various strategies to discourage crocus-foraging varmints, but there is only one that is foolproof: Plant crocuses squirrels don’t like.
Yes, such varieties do exist, and they’re quite attractive. The purpose or white species and hybrids of Crocus tommasinianus bloom from late winter to early spring. They look great, so garden enthusiasts love them. They taste lousy, so squirrels hate them. To crocus lovers, this makes Tommies (as the British call them) much beloved.
With their growht habit of "daughter" corms replacing the "monther" bulb, crocuses self-propogate, reviving themselves and their plant beds each spring. This variety, Ruby Giant, is also "squirrel-proof." Photo: Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.
ABOUT TOMMIES. The species is an Eastern European native named in honor of the 19th century botanist Muzio Giuseppe Spirito de Tommasini. It is one of the earliest crocuses, blooming late in winter and early in spring, along with other bulbous early birds, such as Galanthus (snow drops), Eranthis (winter aconite), Chiondoxa (glory of the snow) and Iris reticulata (dwarf iris). Crocus tommasinianus stands barely six inches tall, with slim, egg-shaped flowers in white, pale lilac, silvery purple or reddish purple. Tommies thrive in full sun or partial shade and are an excellent naturalizer in USDA zones 3 to 8.
For gardeners, what separates this species from others is mainly its unfavorable flavor to critters. Otherwise, it has the same advantages found in other crocuses.
CROCUSES: THE COME-BACK KIDS. Most plants grow and flower during the summer, die back in the fall and are dormant during the winter. Hardy flower bulbs, including crocuses, tulips, daffodils, and other spring-bloomers, have a different life cycle.
After flowering in early spring, crocuses send out grass-like leaves. These leaves serve as mini solar panels to gather energy to power next year’s bloom season. More precisely, bulb flower leaves gather in the energy of the sun and, through photosynthesis, turn the minerals of the soil into sugars and starches the plant stores in its corm and uses as nourishment.
In fall, when other plants are going dormant, bulbs such as crocuses are revving up. After a summer of dormancy, the crocus is developing “daughter” bulbs on top of the original “mother” bulb (technically a corm), now nearly spent and about to shrivel and fade away, to be replaced by the daughter corms.
As the mother corm fads, the daughters strengthen and prepare to carry the family line forward into next season. By forming on top of the mother corm, it might be supposed that the daughter corms would eventually work their way to the surface. Not so – nature adapts.
In addition to the normal straight-downward-growing roots, the daughter corms have what are called contractile roots. These roots go down at an angle, acting as an anchor to pull the daughter corm down so that it takes the position of the spent mother corm. The new daughters are now clustered around the position of the original mother corm, ready to bloom into a new, thicker, richer display of color than the year before.
The mother-daughter propagation is a neat trick, but crocuses do more. Crocuses that are naturalized and not mowed or cut down too early, also propagate through self-seeding.
SQUIRREL-PROOFING CROCUS BEDS. When planting the various versions of Crocus vernus and other pest-vulnerable crocus varieties, some simple strategies can help mitigate losses. Clean up loose bulb tunics and other planting debris. Their scent is a tip-off to where planted bulbs lie. Many gardeners advise feeding squirrels peanuts or corn in tree feeders during their fall nut-gathering (and human bulb-planting) period. This is the tactic employed by the National Park Service at the White House. In theory, this offers the squirrels easy food in prime season, discouraging them for digging harder to find nourishment, such as buried bulbs.
Visit www.bulb.com for more information on planting the right spring-flowering bulbs this fall.