The Difference Between Corms, Bulbs, Tubers, and Rhizomes

Corm of snake lily

David Beaulieu

Certain plants have a swollen, underground plant stem called a "corm." The purpose of this stem is to store nutrients, food that the plant will use at a future time. Nutrients stored in the corm during one growing season will help in the production of roots, leaves, and flowers for the next growing season.

Difference Between Corms and Bulbs

To the horticulturist, the terms "bulbs," "tubers," "rhizomes," and "corms" all have distinct meanings. But when gardeners are speaking casually, they often fail to make a distinction between them. Instead, they loosely call all of these swollen, underground plant parts "bulbs." But if you want to lump them all together using one word, the correct umbrella term is geophytes. "Geophyte" is made up of the Greek words for earth and plant. Shoots spring out of these geophytes, crack the surface and develop the part of the plant that we see growing above-ground.

The crocus (Crocus vernus) is an example of a small plant that grows from a corm. Its rounded corm measures roughly 1 inch in diameter. A larger plant that springs from a corm is the snake lily (Amorphophallus konjac). The corm of a mature snake lily is hassock-shaped and can measure 10 inches at the widest point across, 9 inches front to back, and 6 inches tall. The cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum), a popular gift from the florist shop during the winter holiday season, also grows from a corm, as does the popular cut flower, Gladiolus.

We tend to lump Crocus vernus together with spring bulb plants (since it blooms at the same time and is hardy), but the following are examples of true bulb plants:

Like crocuses, these plants have bulbous, underground plant parts that can survive cold winters, and their flower stems push up through the ground in spring. But true bulbs are divided into layers (think of an onion), including a papery outer layer. Corms are not divided in this way; rather, they are solid units.

What Are Tubers and Rhizomes?

So what is the difference between tubers and corms? Buds sprout from tubers (think of the "eyes" on a potato). You can cut off individual hunks that have buds and plant them to get new plants, which is something you can't do with corms and bulbs. An example of a landscape plant that grows from tubers is the Dahlia. Tubers, unlike corms, bulbs, and rhizomes, do not multiply.

Still, other plants grow from rhizomes. Rhizomes are modified, swollen stems that grow horizontally. They often appear as nothing more than roots. Like tubers, rhizomes have buds from which new plants sprout. But tubers do not grow horizontally. 

Powerhouse weeds such as Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) use rhizomes to full advantage, spreading to form monocultures that dominate a landscape. Leave just the smallest scrap of rhizome behind in the soil when trying to dig out such a weed, and it will defiantly return. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), and Canna lily are examples of landscape plants that grow from rhizomes.