The Loveable Tulip

The Loveable Tulip

Their vibrant colors usher in the growing season

Species tulips grow wild in some of the wildest places on the planet, and species will naturalize in home gardens when they are in suitable locations. Lynette L. Walther.

Ask anyone where tulips originated, and for most the obvious answer would be Holland. That is indeed where many of today’s tulip bulbs are grown for the gardening and cut flower markets. And it was there that tulip mania captured the hearts and economy of the 17th century. In that wild that time, in the Dutch Golden Age, astronomical prices were paid for rare tulips, and tulips became a must-have for every sophisticated garden of its day. But tulips originally were discovered far from that low-lying sea nation.

In the wild, tulips thrive on remote, difficult-to-reach mountain ridges and barren steppes. Frigid winter cold (necessary to provide the required dormancy for these unique flowering bulbs) and blazing springtime sun and arid conditions typify their native environments. Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are some of the faraway locations where tulips grow with wild abandon. Those are the species tulips, the ones that we now know naturalize (spread) when they are grown in favorable locations.

Clusiana species tulips are like little candy canes. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

They are the tulips that “tulip hunters” of old brought back to Europe and which provided the base from which tulip hybridization began and continues to this day. With names of Tulipa patens, T. schrenkii, T. behmiana, T. albertii, T. talievii, T. greigii and so on, many of those simple species tulips bear the names of those explorers who “discovered” them for the European market. Many are still, to this day, available for growing in home gardens.

Hybrid tulips—those big, gorgeous varieties in stunning single or blended colors that come in early-spring, mid-spring, and late-season bloom times—are often the stars of long-lasting springtime floral displays. Long-stemmed and with huge blooms, their appeal is universal. Handsome as they are, those spring-flowering bulbs often do not repeat their stunning seasonal performances for more than a year or two. Also, most of the fancy hybrids do not naturalize, even under the best of conditions.

Acuminata species tulips have other-worldly blooms. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Instead, it is those little workhorses of the tulip world, the species tulips (like those varieties mentioned above) that return year after year, slowly spreading their cheer as they naturalize in our sunny borders and beds. Many of these charming smaller tulips, frequently short-stemmed, have variegated foliage for even more garden interest. Many share an intriguing characteristic: their blooms fold up for the night or during cloudy periods and unfurl for full cheerful displays on sunny springtime days.

Hybrid tulips come in varieties that bloom at varying times in early, mid-, and late-season. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

But how can we ensure that those bulbs we commit to the ground in the fall will erupt into colorful displays come spring? The admonition that soggy bottoms are no place for tulips comes from fact.

Keep in mind that mountain rock scree debris fields and stony hillsides are the places that tulips grow naturally and in their wild state. With that background, we gain an insider’s knowledge of how to grow these beloved and colorful spring bulb flowers successfully in our own gardens. Drainage is key, whether we are planting species tulips or hybrids.

Full sun is the next requirement.

Cut hybrid tulips are a wonderful way to enjoy these seasonal favorites even if you do not have a garden. Photo by Lynette L. Walther

If we want to help ensure future displays, we never, ever remove the foliage after bloom time, no matter how unsightly it may become. That foliage has an all-important job to do—to help rebuild the energy of the flower bulb for next year’s flowers. Once it has decayed and separated from the bulb below the soil, it can be removed. (Note that tulip bulbs “forced” to bloom early in containers usually cannot be counted upon to bloom another year if planted in the ground. The process of “forcing” them simply saps too much energy from the bulbs.)

Soil pH is also important. Strive for a soil pH of 6.0–7.0. Amend the soil according to soil test results, adjusting the pH with the addition of bone meal, and always optimize drainage. Planting in raised beds or the addition of compost can improve drainage.

Take care with the depth of planting. A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs (which can vary greatly in size from that of an acorn to a golf ball or bigger) at depths two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Remember to plant with the pointed side up, from where foliage will emerge, and with the concave side down.

Hybrid parrot-style tulips are flashy additions to the springtime floral display. Photo by Lynette L. Walther.

Because squirrels and digging critters love to eat tulip bulbs, protecting tulip bulbs from predators is also important. Layers of gravel both above and below bulbs can help discourage digging animals. So too can placing bulbs in wire “cages” constructed of wire fencing, with openings wide enough for foliage to emerge, but at the same time restricting squirrels or other animals from digging them up and eating them.

The long and fascinating heritage of tulips, where and how they made their way into our gardens, only adds to their appeal. The springtime appearance of flowering tulips is reason enough to cheer as their vibrant colors usher in the growing season.

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Lynette Walther

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