Saturday, April 2, 2011

Identifying bulbs growing in early spring by shoots

It's finally nice enough here to walk around and see plenty of bulbs breaking through the dirt.  Here's a quick guide to identifying a few of the earliest starters, based on my own observations:
(Note, the colors and styles of the blooms will vary! these are just examples)

Click here for photos of some of these blooming!

Crocus:  If you catch them super early, they start out as a small white spike coming out of the ground (this is usually mostly or entirely covered by dirt or leaves).  Once sprouting, they look like small bunches of grass, sometimes with a white stripe down the middle of the leaves.  Frequently you can identify them by the fact that by the time you see them, they are already blooming.  Available in many colors; such as white, purple, and yellow.

Daffodil:  Groups of wide blade shaped leaves that are all parallel to each other.  The groups of shoots grow in pairs from bulbs.  The flower eventually emerges in the center (see far right photo).

Day Lily: Often you'll find them in big groups.  They can have the same sort of faded appearance that Irises get because they are re-growing from a previous season.  Day lily shoots will have multiple triangular leaves coming off of a central point, but unlike Irises they are wrapped around each other instead of side by side.

Hyacinth: Look like very thick spikes when first coming out of the ground, but very quickly open up as the flowers grow.  They have a similar appearance to Squill that have multiple flowers in a single plant, but are much larger.

  Iris: Very pointy blades growing from a single point, usually look more faded than other bulb leaves (on the right you can see new growth from a bulb that still has the dead leaves from last year attached).  The leaves all grow in a single flat plane.

Tulip: Many start out red/orange, then become more green as they grow (some even have cool colored veins in the leaves).  They grow as wavy leaves all curving together around a central point.  If you see a tallish spike in your yard, it could be a tulip that hasn't started to unwrap yet.

Siberian Squill: Looks a bit like a smaller, blue crocus (though can have multiple flowers).  The leaves are slightly more substantial and fewer in number than crocus leaves.  Another one that is as like as not to be blooming by the time you see it.


Striped Squill: Similar to Siberian Squill, but white with stripes.  Here you can see the shoots when they are first breaking through the dirt.  With the multiple flowers per stem, they can look like tiny hyacinth.

Snowdrops: Common snowdrops (left) look similar to crocus or squill when first coming up.  Giant snowdrops (center and right) look a little more like curved daffodils.  They will, however, be out in force much earlier in the season. 

Bulb was eaten by a rodent: There is a hole where you planted the bulb.
 This happened to all but one bulb that I planted in my front yard, while all my backyard bulbs are fine.  I believe this is because my dog runs around my backyard, and the rodents were smart enough to stay away.  I've also heard that placing chicken wire or similar items over the bulbs can work, because it will keep animals from digging but allow the bulb to grow through it.

Thanks to Theatrum Botanicum for some of the IDs!


  1. Way to not use ANY latin names.

  2. Well, there's Augustus Hyacinth, Romulus Daffodil, Octavius Iris...

  3. I found your site to be very helpful...I just purchased a home and have been trying to figure out what I have. Scientific names not needed ;) Thanks!!

  4. Thanks for your info and pics. I started a bulb bed last fall and have lost track of all the bulbs' locations. You really helped. PSS

  5. Glad to know it's helpful!

  6. Thanks for your info and pics. I started a bulb bed last fall and have lost track of all the bulbs' locations. You really helped. [2]

  7. I'm really struggling with identifying bulbs after the flowers are gone. I have just recently caught the bulb bug and have been given permission to dig all the bulbs I want at a 100+ year old collapsing farmhouse on the edge of a field. There are GOBS of them growing every where. As in I put the shovel in the dirt 8 times today and removed over 400 bulbs in just 8 shovel fulls. The place has not been touched in over 50 years other than someone bush hogging the yard every few years. At this point I'm beginning to get worried that I could be harvesting some form of weed rather than flowers. I know the ones close to the house are flowers because they are obviously originating from where garden beds once were. But there are sooooooooooooo many in huge clumps all over the yard. None smell like garlic/onion so I'm sure that is not what they are. Any suggestion on how to identify them by mature leaves alone?

    1. Many types of bulb flowers will spread like that if they establish themselves in a good environment, especially if they have had years and years to do so. I've certainly seen entire lawns filled with squill, and have had day lilies take over sections of my own yard if I don't keep an eye on them. The leaves on the plants after blooming often just look like longer versions of the forms shown here, so hopefully you can find something on this page that resembles them? To be safe maybe just plant them in one small corner of your yard to start with in case it turns out to be something you don't like! If in doubt, you could try calling your local garden store and asking if they would be willing to try to identify the plant if you bring one in a plastic bag. Good luck!

  8. bought a new house and your site is helpful, as my guess is we have some iris, in a location we rather not

  9. this post was just what i needed! just bought a new house in the winter and have been waiting to see what would pop up. Thanks so much!

  10. Very helpful. Thank you!