The garden center a mile from my house sells autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) as “The Magic Bulb!” and highlights it as needing no water, no soil and no care. It’s a little unsettling to see the soft pink flowers blooming right on the counter top. I much prefer autumn crocus in the ground, grouped under trees or shrubs.

Colchicum

Autumn crocus lights up shady spots with its bright flowers.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Red Lycoris

Red spider lily flowers appear on tall, leafless stems in late summer and fall.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Pink Lycoris

Pink and yellow spider lilies make a nice grouping in fall.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Autumn crocus blooms are lilac pink or white and grow about 6 inches tall, suddenly erupting from the ground in September and October. The flowers are larger than spring crocus, so a few bulbs make a good show. Plant the bulbs (technically corms) in August or September, and they will bloom immediately. Autumn crocus is reliably perennial in USDA Hardiness zones 5-8. For more of a show, use a double form such as ‘Waterlily’ or ‘Pleniflorum’.

Red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) are fascinating plants. My grandmother grew them, and it was almost shocking to see the red “spider legs” suddenly appear every autumn on leafless stems. Despite their spiky look, the flowers are soft and can be used in arrangements (though their vase life is not long). Red spider lilies grow 1-2 feet tall and can be planted in late summer to give you fabulous blooms only weeks later. They’re hardy in zones 7-10. For different-colored flowers, try golden spider lily (Lycoris aurea), white spider lily (Lycoris albiflora) or orange spider lily (Lycoris sanguinea). All bloom in late summer and early fall.

Yellow autumn crocus or autumn daffodil (Sternbergia lutea) is less well-known than the previous bulbs mentioned. This bulb can be planted from September to November and yields bright yellow flowers about 6 inches tall only a few weeks after planting. It’s a little more hardy than other fall-blooming bulbs (zones 6-9).

All these fall-blooming bulbs produce flowers on leafless stems. After the flowers have faded, the leaves will appear at ground level. These die back completely in spring, so the sudden appearance of the flowers in fall is always a surprise. The bulbs can be planted in pots, but if you want to make sure they come back year after year, plant them in the ground. They’re great for naturalizing, so try planting them in a forgotten area or in grass that isn’t mowed too often.