How to Identify Flower Bulbs by Foliage

Written by julie christensen
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How to Identify Flower Bulbs by Foliage
Among the first to bloom in spring, daffodils have long, spear-like leaves. (Daffodils image by red4blues from

Bulbs are among the most versatile garden plants. Fall-planted bulbs, such as daffodil, crocus and tulips, are among the first flowers to emerge in the spring, bringing welcome colour to a dreary landscape. Spring-planted bulbs, such as dahlias and gladiolus, provide colourful summer blooms. Bulbs are divided into several categories: true bulbs (daffodil, tulip), corms (crocus, gladiolus), tubers (cyclamen, tuberous begonia) and rhizomes (lily of the valley, bearded iris). Remembering these distinctions isn't important, but understanding the differences between spring- and fall-planted bulbs is, as they need different feeding and watering schedules to thrive. Learn to identify flower bulbs by foliage alone to get a head start on their specific cultivation requirements.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Consider the time of year you see foliage emerging. Daffodils, crocus and hyacinth are among the first to emerge, often before the snow has melted. Iris emerge in late spring, while begonias, gladiolus and dahlia are planted in late spring and emerge in summer.

  2. 2

    Examine the leaves' shape. Many bulbs have spear-like foliage, including daffodils, crocus, gladiolus, iris, glory-of-the-snow, hyacinth and tulip. Daffodil leaves are 12 inches long, bright green and flexible. Tulip leaves are wider (2 or 3 inches) and a lighter shade of green. Iris have wide (2-inch) leaves that are flat and stiff.

    How to Identify Flower Bulbs by Foliage
    Bearded iris form thick, spear-like leaves. (iris image by Henryk Olszewski from
  3. 3

    Examine the growing pattern of the leaves. Do they form singly or with several on one stem (compound)? Cyclamen form rounded single leaves. Dahlias and wax begonias have several tear-shaped leaves on each stem. Some bulbs, such as allium and fritillaria, have leaves at the base of the plant only.

    How to Identify Flower Bulbs by Foliage
    Cyclamen have rounded, variegated leaves. (cyclamen image by Srecko Stipovic from

Tips and warnings

  • Buy heavy bulbs with no mushy or rotten spots. Plant spring-blooming bulbs in the fall after the weather starts to turn cold, but before the first heavy frost. Plant summer-blooming bulbs after the last frost.
  • Store bulbs in a cool, dry location.
  • Don't cut spent leaves until after the bulbs have finished flowering and the leaves are brown.

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