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Spring Bulbs: Eat-Me-Nots

Updated: Mar 24

Buds buds everywhere and not a bulb to eat. 

spring bulbs, toxic spring flowers, toxic spring bulbs, spring flowering bulbs

Spring is popping up, literally, as represented by bulbs popping up their plump flower heads from still cold damp soil to catch the first pollinators of the year (maybe) and reward us visual creatures for surviving the depths of winter’s chill.

But, um...

can you eat those?

Basically, I wouldn’t.

Many species of our beloved spring flowering bulbs are quite toxic

Not just because they’re better off finishing their bloom, feeding pollinators, and spreading seeds (more likely for the native species) for more flowers in the next 3-7 years (bulbs can take a long time to make their first bloom).  Many species of our beloved spring flowering bulbs are quite toxic and most especially carry toxins like alkaloids and some glycosides in their fleshy bulbous underground bits- those storage adapted leaf modifications called, duh- bulbs

fleshy bulbs, Fritillaria bulbs, rice root
small bulbs and bulblets of rice root/chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis)

By the way, that’s what a true “bulb” is- fleshy swollen leaves for resource storage.  They are left deeper underground at the base of the “normal” green thin leaves that emerge from the bulb’s core, pushing up through the soil to photosynthesize and soon refill that storage bulb with energy, water, and nutrients.  This all makes a bulb a valuable food for animals (and us, if you are one of those that like those crisp-slimy tear-worthy “onion” things, ew). 

bulb growth

And that’s why many species have evolved to store toxic secondary chemicals in their fleshy-rooty-parts, and often some is found still in their above-ground shoots too- to keep them from being munched. The leaves are usually where these chemicals are produced and the concentrate into the bulbs. So we're focusing on the bulbs of spring, not rhizomes or tubers or corms which many tend to generalize as a bulb *but they are NOT a botany bulb.

spring tulips, tulip flowers, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulbs

When you think “spring flowering bulbs”, you may think: daffodils, tulips, crocus (see post here for more on those cuties), hyacinth, or snow-drops.  Yet lurking underneath the whimsical blooms the welcome our springs, is something dangerous. All but one of those plants are toxic (sorta)!  And yet deer will still eat some of the less toxic ones like tulips, but probably because the leaves are less so than their bulbs and the effects can be more in organ damage than faster feel-able suffering. 

Prior to the 1900s, plants were the primary source of poisoning to humans and I think a little education is good to prevent a relapse in history, don’t you?  Don’t blindly munch your way through your spring, or any season really.  You should always know what you’re going to eat, but maybe the key here is to also watch the youngsters around the spring flowers. 

Spring bulbs are NOT for eating.

Daffodils (Narcissus sp.) have the toxin lycorine in all their parts, which would cause various digestive upset and pain. 

daffodil flowers, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers
daffodil flowers, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers

Tulips have aptly named tulipalin-A which is a toxic glycoside that can cause skin irritation (also found in Alstroemeria plants) and liver damage (not something the deer care about apparently).

tulip flower, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers

tulip flower, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers

Hyacinths have several toxic alkaloids including the common lycorine and calcium oxalate raphides and do the usual digestive upset thing, but can also irritate skin.

All these are most concentrated in the plant bulbs, their most treasured storage area and sought by munching critters.  So these toxins are considered adaptations against hungry hungry herbivores.

hyacynthe flower, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers
hyacynthe flower, spring bulbs, spring flowering bulb, toxic flower bulbs, deer resistant flowers

Oh, and speaking of spring poisonings- those charming beloved rhododendrons the PNW has native and entire arboretums devoted to?  Yeah, also pretty toxic, with carbohydrate “andromedotoxin” (in azaleas too).  Even the honey made predominantly from the flowers of these pretty spring shrubs can be poisonous, as the Greeks had discovered.  Ah!  Don’t raise bees for honey in a rhododendron arboretum, just in case! (thank you, “Deadly Doses” by Serita D. Stevens, 1990)

blooming rhododendron, by David Howard

I’ve got more news (if you didn’t know)- it’s not just the spring bulbs (and shrubs) that commonly come with calamitous chemistry.  Beware the summertime iris, fritillaria (ok, some bulbs are edible but only if you cook them), and

always ALWAYS! beware of autumn’s naked ladies. 
pink naked lady, Amaryllis belladonna
pink naked lady, by Swallowtail Garden Seeds

Oh, the bulbs by that name too- cute pink true Amaryllis (unlike those big, also toxic, winter bloomers you see around the holidays along with poinsettias which are Hippeastrum spp), aka A. belladonna, “beautiful” naked ladies as the species name indicates.  Definitely beware 😉 Naked- because they bloom without any leaves after a summer dormancy.

Amaryllis flower, Hippeastrum species, toxic flowers

Just because these bulbs are toxic, doesn’t mean you need to shy away from having them in your yard.  In fact, they may be one of the few flowers you can keep around among hordes of hungry hungry deer (seriously, the slow zombies of the herbivore world in some areas).  Just keep them away from children as you plant them, maybe pets too.

common flowering bulb toxic or not, common flowering bulb toxicity

spring crocus, non-toxic crocus, spring bulbs
the non-toxic spring Crocus
camas flowers, death camas
white death camas (edible purple common camas behind)

fall planted bulbs, spring flowering bulbs
fall planted spring flowering bulbs, by Biodiversity Heritage Library

As you plant them (in fall for spring-bloomers, and in spring for summer/fall bloomers) seasoned gardeners may be familiar with the common practice of sprinkling in some bone meal for their roots. This seems great in theory.  Bone meal is high in calcium and phosphorus (literally ground-up livestock bones, and about 15-30% P, 12% plus 3% N), which do help roots grow, but it isn’t necessarily helpful for your bulbs.  It depends on the soil really.  And you can over do it, which can harm the beneficial organisms and especially helpful fungi in the soil which would cause later strain on those plants as they loose their tiny soil support system. 

Soil that is already healthy doesn’t need an extra dose of any nutrients and over fertilizing can actually cause less nutrient availability to the plants, which is ironic, but it’s a delicate chemistry balance there.  Or the plants can actually get “burned” and develop brown leaf tips from too much fertilizer.  Bone meal is also fairly slow to break down to let roots pull up their nutrients, so don’t expect an actual boost quickly for the plants.

bone meal for bulbs, bulb planting, spring bulbs
Adding bone meal to each bulb hole for long-term bulb garden in sandy clay soil

Creepy fact= you may attract bone-hungry predators/scavengers.  Imagine, lovingly tucking in lovely bulbs with a sprinkle of powdered bones mixed in to the soil below and then finding them all dug up the next day from a racoon, or coyote, or skunk.  They could smell the bone powder and come looking for the bone hoping to scavenge marrow or even meat from them from that association. But it is organic at least and a by product of meat production that’s sort of reducing waste, so… pros and cons! 

Coyote, by USDA NRCS Montana

Still, some gardeners swear by the bone meal sprinkle for bulb planting.  I’d say- do so if your soil isn’t too good and also start working on that with top-dressings of compost, mulch, and maybe even growing nitrogen-fixing plants like those in the pea family to naturally introduce nitrogen into the soil if it's low.  And if you want to really do it right, have your area’s soil tested for the basics- pH/acidity, plus nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus (those are the X-X-X numbers you see, in that order, on fertilizer labels).  Most soils will already have plenty of phosphorus and won’t need an extra boost, same for calcium.  So you may be at best, just wasting money and time adding that bone dust to your soil.  Unless you’re a bulb/root-farmer and the soil gets depleted by high-producing root growers. 

Then, bone it up! (sorry)


Deadly Doses: a writer's guide to poisons, by Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner. 1990


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