Tulips have enchanted gardeners for hundreds of years, feeding a passion that got out of hand in 17th-century Holland when people lost first their heads and then their fortunes over the craze known as Tulipomania.
This was more a financial speculation frenzy than a pure mania for the bulb itself, but there had to be something alluring about the tulip to have caused such a ruinous bubble.
The most spellbinding aspect (other than its exquisitely simple form) is the flower’s color, or, more to the point, colors. They inhabit every shade except black, and the darkest purple cultivars come pretty close to that.
You can even find tulips that are green, bronze and (partially) blue. And tulips have another trick up their sleeves: The normal rules of color harmonies and contrasts don’t seem to apply. You can mix what might be regarded as jarring hues and it all turns out well, even with color mixes on the same flower. Dordogne is a variety that is, essentially, sherbet orange overlaid with hot pink. This sounds ghastly, but it is strikingly beautiful and one of my favorite tulips.
There is also an impressive range of flower types and growth habit in the tulip family and the season can extend from mid-March to early May if you exploit this breadth.
The persistent question surrounding tulips is whether the gardener can expect them to return. The answer is that some will, many won’t and the rest may return in a diminished state. Dutch growers make a living by getting tulips to increase year to year, but they are experts at doing this, and they give the bulbs the correct soil conditions, deadhead the flowers to prevent seed set, and lift and store them carefully during dormancy.
My general advice is to treat tulips as annuals. They are cheap enough that you can indulge yourself in this spring treat.
Tulips can range from ground-hugging wild types that flower just a few inches above the soil to long-stemmed chalices on stalks rising to 30 inches. Most popular hybrids grow to about 20 inches.
Use and placement
If you are treating tulips as annuals, the easiest way to grow them is in their own beds or borders. They can be pulled after flowering and the real estate can be used for summer annuals or vegetables. Alternatively, you can carefully plant bulbs between perennials and ground covers.
Low-growing botanical types are well suited to sunny and free-draining rock gardens, gravel-mulched herb gardens and pathside slopes.
Planting and care
The more you plant the greater the effect. Go big.
Most tulips need to be planted at least 4 inches below soil level, but twice that is preferable to deter squirrel rummaging and to develop good root growth before the soil freezes.
Tulips that you intend to pull after flowering can be placed in less-than-optimum clay soil and shadier spots, though not in deep shade. If you live in regions that can get suddenly hot in late April, a little shade will keep the flower display fresher longer.
Bulbs can be set close together but shouldn’t touch. Discard any that are soft or withered. Don’t worry about a little surface mold or if the outer skin — or tunic — comes away or is missing.
Tulips can be planted in freeze-proof containers on the patio or deck, but should be covered with burlap, netting or some barrier to prevent squirrel incursion. This should be removed in winter as the tulips grow. A 2-inch layer of pea gravel at planting time may also deter the rodents.
These are generally low-growing, small-flowered tulips well suited to rock garden style beds. They should return year after year in sunny and well-drained sites, and if they are happy, their number will increase. Most are among the first tulips of the season. The blooms open fully in the warmth of the day, presenting themselves as starlike flowers with hearts or “eyes” at the base of the inner petals, then close at night.
Lilac Wonder has lavender-pink flowers with yellow hearts; Little Beauty has magenta petals with an indigo blue heart; Persian Pearl is purple with a rich yellow heart; Tulipa turkestanica has white petals with orange-yellow hearts; Tulipa sylvestris has nodding, bright yellow blooms; and Eastern Star opens a deep rose with a yellow base.
Tulipa clusiana are quite different, with delicate bicolored blooms on tall and sometimes meandering stems. These include Lady Jane, ivory white and rose red; variety cynthiana, warm yellow and deep rose; Peppermint Stick, clear white and lipstick red; and Honky Tonk, soft yellow with a faint rose blush.
Another taller (and later) botanical tulip is Tulipa acuminata, which is slender, with red and yellow petals with tapering points, and grows to 18 inches.
There are at least 15 classifications of garden tulips, not all of which are dealt with here. Here are some key ones to know.
The first to consider are varieties of three species, Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana and T. greigii. While they are low-growing and early, their flowers are more typical of the classic tulip bloom. They are also more likely than most other hybrids to return.
Fosteriana varieties are sometimes called emperor tulips, and include White Emperor, Red Emperor and Orange Emperor. Juan is red orange with a yellow base and purple marked foliage. Varieties of Greigii tulips have distinctive and attractive leaf patterns. They include Red Riding Hood, a low grower with pointed red petals blushed pink-purple, and Mary Ann, which is taller and has a pale pink flower with a raspberry flame.
The most popular and well-known tulips arrive early- to mid-season and encompass three groups, Single Early, Triumph and Darwin Hybrid. They all have the classic tulip flower shape, though Darwin Hybrids tend to have rounder petals and a more open flower.
Single Early varieties include Apricot Beauty, salmon blooms gently flamed rose; Couleur Cardinal, scarlet red flamed purple; and Prinses Irene, a soft orange with pink-purple flames.
Triumph varieties grow taller on thick, sturdy stems and include varieties with large chalice-like blooms. They are available as bright solid colors, including yellows and whites, and in a range of red and purple hues, often with eye-catching flaming to the outer petals. Barcelona is a vivid light purple and pairs well with the darker purple Negrita. Rodeo Drive is a saturated rose-red, National Velvet is a darker red.
Darwin Hybrids grow to 24 inches or so and feature varieties in vivid reds, yellows and oranges, though subtler colors and bicolors are available. Daydream opens a soft yellow and ages to apricot; Big Chief is rosy-red with a silver sheen; Apeldoorn is a cherry red and more reliable than most as a perennial. Banja Luka is a strong yellow with red feathering and another variety likely to return the following spring.
The late season tulip groups are worth the wait — they are to my mind the most sophisticated and elegant of all the tulips, with much variety among them.
The most exquisite is the Single Late tulip, whose pastel versions are called French tulips by florists. They grow tall — to 30 inches — and the blooms are tall goblets that are squared off at the base. They make wonderful cut flowers and look great, too, left in the garden. Some of my favorites are Maureen, marble white; Menton, rose-pink with soft orange edges; Queen of Night, deep purple-black; Renown, a fuchsia pink with intense flaming; and Kingsblood, a dark cherry red.
Another classy bulb is the Lily-flowered tulip, a handful of varieties with long, waisted blooms that end in distinctive points. White Triumphator is the standard white version, which can look elegant planted en masse in a formal bed. Ballerina is orange with a reddish flame. Marilyn is a creamy white feathered bright red.
Parrot tulips are named for the way their contorted petal edges suggest parrot beaks. They are widely considered a flower arranger’s dream, so plant extra for the vase. Flaming Parrot has an oversize bloom, bright yellow flamed ruby red. Blue Parrot is a vivid violet with darker inner petals. Black Parrot is a deep burgundy. Yellow Madonna is a pastel yellow with faint yellow and green feathering.