What would spring be without tulips? Their large, brilliant, jewel-toned flowers, often with playful markings at their centers, are just what we crave after the gloom and cold of winter. Those big bright bowls of color speak directly to our inner child (as well as to children themselves). And with the wide range of varieties available today, tulips can provide a continuous succession of garden brightness from early to late spring.
Tulips have been seducing gardeners for centuries. Turkish sultans featured them in their palace gardens in the 15th and 16th centuries, growing numerous hybrids characterized by dazzling colors and claw-shaped petals. From there, tulips made their way to Europe, evolving into the blunt-petaled forms that we associate with the genus (know botanically as Tulipa). By the early seventeenth century, tulips were all the rage in sophisticated European circles, triggering waves of “tulipomania” that built and destroyed fortunes.
Today, we’re fortunate to have thousands of tulip hybrids in numerous shapes and color. Further enriching our gardens are the many Tulipa species that have been introduced to horticulture in the relatively recent past. Horticulturists group cultivated tulips into sixteen “classes” depending on their flowering times, characteristics, and lineage.
This vast horticultural treasure trove began with a handful of wild ancestors from Central and West Asia, regions where summers are hot and dry and winters cold and snowy. And even today, most garden tulips flourish in conditions that recall their lands of origin. They need sun and winter chill to bloom, and a relatively dry summer rest to perennialize. If you garden in the northern United States and can offer sunny, not-too-damp conditions, tulips of all types will likely thrive – provided the pests don’t get them (more on this later).
Fittingly, tulip season begins just as spring officially arrives, in March and early April. Earliest of all are a number of elfin Tulipa species that are comparable in stature to the Dutch hybrid crocuses that bloom alongside them. Many of these pixies (e.g., Tulipa biflora) open wide in sun to reveal white interiors with central yolks of yellow. Perhaps the queen of the early-risers is Tulipa humilis, which blooms in a variety of eye-catching hues including purple, pink, and white, with contrasting eyes.
A number of larger-flowered hybrids follow closely upon these earliest tulips. Kaufmanniana Hybrids (named after the species that sired them) typically have pointed, white or yellow, red-flamed blooms, with broad basal leaves that often bear showy bronze mottling. Single Early Tulips (such as ‘Apricot Giant’ and ‘Coleur Cardinal’) open their large, goblet-shaped blooms on short sturdy stems just as the Kaufmannianas are peaking, in early to mid-April. Then in the next few weeks comes a succession of other tulip classes, most notably:
Fosteriana Hybrids (including the famed ‘Emperor’ cultivars), prized for their huge, brightly colored flowers on relatively compact stems.
Greigii Hybrids, short in stature, with large cupped flowers and gray-green, maroon-splotched leaves.
Triumph Tulips, marked by their elegant, sturdy flowers and strong tall stems that stand up to inclement weather. Most bloom in the pastel range and many have contrasting petal margins.
Darwin Hybrids, combining the height of the Single Late Tulips with the immense brilliant blooms of the Fosteriana Hybrids, and flowering between these two parent classes.
Single Late Tulips, blooming well into May in a wide range of rich colors, on stems that typically exceed 26 inches.
Lily-flowered Tulips, named for their pointed petals that open wide from vase-shaped buds.
Double Late Tulips (such as ‘Angelique’), among the last to bloom, with peony-shaped flowers in mid- to late May.
Altogether, tulip hybrids and species provide more than 2 months of bloom and endless ornamental possibilities. Many species and smaller-flowered hybrids mingle beautifully with other late winter and early spring perennials, both in formal borders and in less formal settings such as cottage gardens. For bold splashes of spring color, nothing beats the large-flowered hybrids, whether in massed bedding schemes or grouped in mixed borders. Some species even naturalize well, persisting and sometimes increasing in garden conditions that are to their liking.
Many tulips also “force” easily in pots, brightening the winter months (see “Forcing Bulbs for Winter Cheer”). Single Early and Fosteriana cultivars are among the best for this purpose.
Outdoors, plant tulips in late summer or early fall in a sunny exposure (after the first frost is often a good time). Fertile, not too heavy soil is best (amend sandy or clay soils with an organic compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost). Although often treated as annuals, tulips of all classes will usually return for several years of bloom if planted deep (6 inches or more below the soil surface). Deep planting also helps protect the bulbs from their chief bane – squirrels and other furry pests. Inter-plant tulips with rodent- and deer-resistant bulbs such as daffodils to further deter these herbivores.
A few tulips will even bloom and persist where winters are “too warm” for them. Tulipa clusiana – often dubbed “lipstick tulip” for the red central bands that mark its outer petals – grows and flowers reliably in areas such as California, the Desert Southwest, and the Deep South. Others to try in these regions include Tulipa saxatilis and the previously mentioned Tulipa sylvestris. Tulips offer spring-long possibilities wherever and whatever the garden.