Corydalis… The next big thing

How does such an awesome little spring blooming bulb (tuber if you want to get technical) fly under the radar for so long?  Apparently a couple in-the-know gardeners have been growing these cool little spring bloomers for years, but I for one didn’t even know they existed until a few years ago.  I believe I came across pictures via Ian Young’s bulb log (if you’ve never been, click here immediately to visit -it’s practically required reading for any bulb lovers out there) , and the impression was one which ate away at me until one fall I was finally able to get my dirty fingers on a few.  Of course as my luck would have it these were promptly killed, but the following year a more determined try proved successful, and the next spring I was just as pleased as I thought I’d be when they bloomed.

corydalis George baker

One of the boldest reds, Corydalis “George Baker” blooms right alongside the blues of chiondoxa and Scilla siberica.

The Corydalis family is a large one with many highly collectible family members, but for me it’s the variations on Corydalis solida which excite me the most right now.  This species ranges across Northern Europe into Asia and for the most part greyish mauves and blues dominate the color spectrum, but starting in the 1970’s and 80’s rich reds and purples began to find their way out of the woods and into the hands of collectors and growers.  The Penza strain from Russia and the Prasil strain from Romania are the some of the best known groups for bold colors and many of the newest named varieties come from these collections.

corydalis solida

A more common color of Corydalis solida, a smaller and slightly later flowering plant than the other Corydalis I grow.

As it is with many plants, once you get excited about one you get greedy and need more, so in addition to the “George Baker” and “Beth Evans” which were purchased from Brent and Becky’s bulbs, and the straight Corydalis solida from Van Engelen, I needed to add more.  The blame for this shouldn’t lie entirely on my own shoulders though, since by now I had seen even more Corydalis glamour shots including the most enticing group shot which I found at Carolyn’s Shade Garden.  Her tapestry of rich purple with pinks and reds would have to be imitated in my own garden and to that end I found Russell Stafford’s Odyssey bulbs.

corydalis rosula

The warm wine red of Corydalis ‘Rosula’, complemented by a nice underplanting of random weeds 😉

The new plantings from Odyssey were a mix of successes and failures and based on the excellent condition of the tubers, I’m going to guess the fault again lies with me.  Even as recently as this spring one of the clumps failed to even show, and I suppose there’s something else going on which I don’t entirely understand… but ignorance is bliss, and I enjoy the remaining two cultivars more than ever now…  even though the addition of a pure white or pink would have made the planting even more perfect!


A more common color but on a sturdier plant, Corydalis ‘Harkov’ scared me by nearly dying last spring after I optimistically dug it up for dividing. It wasn’t ready and it wasn’t pleased, and promptly dried up and went dormant.

I suppose I should try and make this a more useful post by mentioning something other than the many ways in which I’ve killed these plants.  They’re actually fairly carefree in the right woodland conditions, and although I should suggest a fertile, moist shaded site, mine grow quite happily in sites I would consider downright dry, and in locations shaded only by the overhanging perennials and annuals of the front street border.  I guess they don’t know any better.

Another thing I should mention is they bloom early and fade away quickly.  Plant them in a spot where other goodies such as hostas and hellebores or rudbeckias and buddleia fill in for the summer.  My best patch disappears under a carpet of aquilegia (columbine) and ‘Blue Cadet’ hosta two weeks after blooming, and you wouldn’t even know it was there in June, which is good, but you should definitely try to avoid forgetting they’re there and running a shovel through while digging.

corydalis and hellebores

Corydalis, hyacinths and hellebores filling in now that the snowdrops and eranthis have gone over.  In another month columbine, delphinium, hostas and hellebore foliage will take over for the summer.    

A final note is that for the first year or two in my garden I was convinced they couldn’t possibly be making seeds since they yellowed and died down so quickly after blooming.  I’ve since found out I’m wrong.  Seedlings are spreading quickly and this year I have a few of the first starting to put out their own blooms.  I’m thrilled that they are as red as the parents, and even happier there’s some variety to them as well.

corydalis solida seedlings

Some of the first Corydalis solida seedlings to make it to blooming size. One’s nearly as red as the mother clump of ‘George Baker’, the other’s a completely different dusky mauve.

So now the question is should I just enjoy what I have or should I keep trying to expand the flock?  If I could only remember where I planted them (I think I may have finally spotted one or two this afternoon) I would be able to enjoy a few new ‘Purple Bird’ flowers this spring, but is that enough?  It should be, but history shows little attention to common sense in this garden and I’m already well on my way to picking out just a few more indispensables.  You really shouldn’t show too much restraint in spring, it goes completely against the spirit of the season and even when ordering bulbs for fall planting it’s still a celebration of the end of winter!

26 comments on “Corydalis… The next big thing

  1. Paula says:

    Love them here too. Discovered on Van E.’s site and not knowing much, threw the solidas in the soil. They seed around and I’m getting many little plants all over the yard. Purple Bird, Geo. Baker, a white one from Russell @ Odyssey, and a pale lavender one hitch hiking in on a plant from a friend. I have more on order from Odyssey for this fall. What I love about his site is the cultural instructions, and the recommended for our region is the modified continental. Our friend John L. grows many more types in his excellent garden conditions – they were beautiful weren’t they!

    • bittster says:

      Lately I’ve been very responsible as far as bulb ordering goes (if you ignore the whole snowdrop thing). If this kitchen remodel wraps up and there’s still any room left between me and my credit limit I’m sure I’ll make some careless clicks at Odyssey this spring 🙂
      Odyssey’s site is very helpful, it’s a great mix of excitement for every new thing, plus realistic growing advice for bringing it to your own garden. I wish I knew why several of mine didn’t make it, but I suspect it’s something in the particular spot I put them. I’ll just have to try again!
      Too bad I can’t make another trip to John’s. I saw a few pictures and wow, the corydalis were barely starting when we were there last and have just about exploded in the weeks since!

  2. Pauline says:

    We’ve been enjoying Corydalis solida for a few years now and are getting various coloured seedlings. I haven’t noticed any seedlings from Beth Evans, just from C. solida. They are beautiful plants and I hope to add more in the future.

    • bittster says:

      I bet they love your woodland garden!
      I’ve been seeing seedlings around Beth Evans in my garden, but who knows if I have the real Beth. She’s a beauty though, and maybe her seedlings will just sneak up on you one spring 🙂

  3. Cathy says:

    I love Corydalis! I have a couple in my garden, but enjoy seeing them down near the river in the wild. Your post reminded me of a couple of posts I have done on them in the past. If you’re interested:
    I think you should definitely have more! I didn’t realise there were so many different cultivars… must have a look around for some others here too.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks for the link!
      The corydalis party one has a few dangerous photos of Corydalis cava, and I was just trying to convince myself to stick with solida and don’t need to add any other species… hmmmm, both of your cava photos look very tempting 🙂

      • Cathy says:

        Well, if you are going to collect them you really should have some of the cava too Frank! The white ones are just gorgeous! 😉

  4. Christina says:

    Not a plant for my garden here, but I enjoyed reading your enthusiastic account of them.

    • bittster says:

      Thanks Christina, I will have to remind myself of that the next time I covet your anemones!
      We are supposed to have a cold blast next week and I suspect all the flower buds on my wisteria will be lost for the season. Italy is sounding better and better.

  5. pbmgarden says:

    Thanks for the information and encouragement to add corydalis. Will have to get on the bandwagon. Corydalis ‘Rosula’ is a lovely color.

  6. Chloris says:

    I love them, why doesn’ t everybody grow them? Such little gems and they seed around so generously. You have a lovely collection. Have you got the lovely white one; Corydalis malkensis? If not, you really need it.

    • bittster says:

      Funny you mention C. malkensis. I’ve been trying to get it to grow from seed exchange seed, but with no luck. Apparently the seed doesn’t handle being dry too long… But! I finally found someone who has swathes of them and another friend has been assigned to collect seed when it’s ripe. My fingers are crossed for blooms in 2018

  7. rusty duck says:

    I was quite relieved, reading through your post. I’ve tried once, ‘George Baker’. It died. Your experience suggests that I should persevere.

    • bittster says:

      I think they’re worth a second and third try. If you haven’t seen Cathy’s links you may want to take a look, there are other species as well and a few of them might be even more tempting!

  8. Linda says:

    I am addicted to Ian’s bulb log. It’s excellent reading with a martini. I ordered a bunch of Erythroniums and Fritillarias from Russell last year but they are not up yet. Nevertheless I just ordered more bulbs from him inc. blue corydalis that does not go dormant. Isn’t this fun, more obsessions!

    • bittster says:

      I spend hours browsing the bulb log in January, I need that reminder that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and winter will end!
      I’m looking forward to seeing how your new bulbs do this spring. The down side to these little guys is it takes a few seasons before they show off… not quite the same as spending 5$ on a bag of trumpet daffodils!
      I’ve been so close to trying out one of the blue corydalis, but all the disappointments from those earlier introductions left a mark on me. But… I am a slow learner 😉

  9. It wasn’t until this year that I even knew there was a corydalis that grew from a bulb! Mine all grow from roots. When I first read it, I thought it was a misprint. They’re beautiful! I love that deep wine color. 🙂

    • bittster says:

      I guess I just jumped ahead to the bulb types! Actually someone told me they seed around a lot and I got cold feet about bringing them into the garden (and then maybe I also killed a few pot-fulls of seedlings and never gave them a second try)

  10. Alain says:

    Your post inspired me to try some. For some reason, I was left with the idea that they were difficult and that we were too cold for them. I had to change my mind last year when I noticed, in an abandoned garden, that some variety of corydalis had taken over a whole backyard.

    • bittster says:

      I think there are plenty of difficult types, but there are also plenty of pleasant weeds! Some might not be hardy for you, but I bet it’s worth experimenting if you can find a few of the more readily available types… although for me it was almost a struggle to get the cheapest of them, the straight Corydalis solida, to settle down into the garden.

  11. Re: corydalis not coming up–I do think some of them are eaten by rodents. My first corydalis order from Odyssey Bulbs, there was a vole tunnel straight to the C. bracteata tag and no bulb to be seen in spring. Margaret Roach also has problems:

    • bittster says:

      I didn’t know you had voles…. I think they might be the number one garden pest which I would hate to have.
      My losses were very hit or miss, and I doubt something dug up and stole the tubers, but you never know since sometimes they seem to know exactly which are most valuable or your newest favorites!

  12. I love this corydalis and you just get more and more of it the longer you have it—a prolific self seeder. You don’t really need to keep buying different colors. They hybridize quite readily in the garden and you will get every color of the rainbow. Just put the ones you have near each other.

    • bittster says:

      I’m going to try my hardest to be patient and resist buying just a few more, but I do need at least one with a darker color around the “lips” and I’m sure I need at least one white. That should be very reasonable and I’m sure it will be an easy spot to stop at, right 😉

  13. I noticed are up and flowering….and not fazed by the snow. They grow at the base of my 100 foot ash trees. I should add them to some other shade spots…thanks for inspiring me to plant more.

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