Bulbs are great excitement boosters! They’re often one of the first signs of spring that brighten the bare and sometimes still-snow-covered landscape. These plants hold the promise of spring and all the glorious blooms in our garden to come.

Natualizing daffodils

Daffodils multiply and spread after their initial planting.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Lily bulb

Another true bulb, lilies create a beautiful effect in the garden when planted in mass.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning


Hyacinth is one of the most fragrant bulbs and is often grown indoors for that reason

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

But have you ever wondered why your tulips don’t come up as well the second year (if at all), while your daffodils continue to spread and multiply each season? There are some very simple reasons why this happens. The following basics may help you understand more about these interesting plants, as well as help you choose the bulbs that are right for you and your gardening style.

First, we need to understand what a “true bulb” is – basically a bulb with a fully formed plant within it. So if you were to slice open a tulip vertically, you’d see a small baby tulip with flowers, stems, leaves and roots! Other examples of true bulbs are the daffodil, lily, hyacinth and amaryllis. True bulbs can be annuals or perennials.

Tulips are an annual.

“Surely you jest!” you may say. But no – it’s true. Tulips aren’t perennials, which come back year after year. They only produce one flower per bulb. This bulb is called the Mother Bulb, and it only blooms one time before it dies. The Mother Bulb reproduces by producing bulbets, which must reach maturity before you’ll see additional flowers. The Mother Bulb does not reproduce quickly, and it often takes more than one season to develop a new bulbet. Over time, you’ll begin to see a decline in the bed as old bulbs die and fewer bulbets are produced.

Tulips are known as tunicate bulbs. This means they have a “coat” – that’s the brown covering like the skin of an onion. Tulips require a cold treatment with a temperature below 40 degrees F for six to eight weeks in order to produce a flower. (If you live in a warm climate, you can get around this cold requirement by putting the bulbs in the refrigerator. Refrigerated bulbs should be in the ground by January. Never put bulbs in the freezer!)

Daffodils, on the other hand, are a perennial bulb. They’re a tunicate bulb like the tulip, only very different. The original daffodil bulb continues to grow and multiply, so you won’t have the problem of flower decline that occurs with the tulip. (Although when daffodils begin to get crowded, they’ll put out fewer blooms. Then it’s time to dig them up, divide and replant them.)

The daffodil is one of the easiest bulbs to grow. It doesn’t require cold temperatures in order to bloom, but it does need a wet/dry cycle. That is, it needs a period of moisture and dryness to bloom. Our falls and winters normally provide the appropriate environmental conditions to encourage growth.

If you were to dig up a daffodil bulb, it would contain a flower for the present year and a flower for the next year. The varieties seem endless, the blooms are long-lasting, and they’re truly a spectacular sight in spring. Daffodils are a great bulb to start with if you’ve never planted bulbs before. You’ll surely have success!

Obviously there are many more bulbs available out there, including specialty ones like grape hyacinths and snowdrops. Bulbs offer fantastic beauty to your garden, as well as endless enjoyment for you and anyone who comes to visit. Have fun and experiment with these amazing plants – there really is a bulb out there for everyone!