So, its not just me admiring the spectacular tulip displays this year. It’s not that I’ve been traveling by more of them; the flowers are just so vibrant, cheery and beckoning. And, they have been so duly noted by the New York Times and Boston Globe. Perhaps it is a sign of new hope after a long, long year of illness, anxiety and isolation. Whatever the reason, do slow down and enjoy the short but glorious tulip prime time show.

Cool hued tulips. Photo by dmp, 2019

Few flowering bulbs put on as spectacular a spring display as tulips. Most species are native to Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran where they have been cultivated for more than a thousand years. According to Persian legend, tulips sprang from the blood of a distraught lover who took his own life. About 400 years ago, bulbs from Central Asia were sent to Holland to the Flemish botanist, Clusius and planted in the botanical garden at the university at Leiden. The precious bulbs, that he was both displaying and doing research on, were stolen, twice, and were distributed throughout Holland. Clusius was trying to determine the reason for distinctive stripes or ‘breaks’ in the petals of some of the tulips. The craze that followed was dubbed ‘Tulipomania’ and finally the government was forced to put an end to this expensive obsession. Towards the latter part of the eighteenth century the Dutch began hybridizing tulips and created the majority of varieties planted today.

Tulip Carnival de Rio sports a flamed bicolor pattern not caused by a virus. Photo by dmp, 2019

Tulips are divided into two main classes. Species or botanicals are derived from the wild forms and are best for naturalizing as they are usually true from seed. Hybrids, which are most commonly purchased here, have been bred specifically for color, bloom time and other desired characteristics and are propagated by offsets. While hybrids are bold and beautiful and hard to resist, please try to find a place for their wilder and often more dainty or whimsical looking ancestors. A recent news thread was entitled, “Who Cares About Kyrgyzstan’s Threatened Tulips?” Many of the 27 tulip species in this country are at risk from overgrazing, over harvesting, mining and urbanization, not to mention climate change. Animals may be able to move to more amenable environments as their habitats are affected by climate change; plants move on a much slower scale that puts many species in imminent danger of extinction. Two Connecticut bulb companies that do offer nice selections of species tulips are www.vanengelen.com and www.johnscheepers.com.    

Tulipa tarda, a species tulip. Photo by dmp, 2020

Early blooming tulips include Kaufmanniana, also known as waterlily tulips, Fosterana tulips, and single and double early tulips. Kaufmanniana tulips are generally bicolored and grow only 6 to 9 inches tall. Many have lovely mottled or striped foliage. The Fosteranas are the tallest of the early tulips reaching up to 20 inches. They are noted for their beautiful cup-shaped flowers and wide assortment of colors.

Kaufmanniana tulips with mottled foliage. Photo by dmp, 2021

Both single and double early tulips last longer than other early blooming varieties with the singles being quite fragrant and suitable for forcing.

Single early bloomers were crossed with late bloomers to create the midseason triumph tulip. “Apricot Beauty’ with its rosy, peach blossoms on 14 inch stems is one of my favorites, doubling as an excellent cut flower. Greigii hybrids are shorter midseason tulips known for their mottled or striped foliage. A recently developed midseason variety are the Darwin hybrids, a cross between late blooming Darwins and early Fosteranas featuring extremely large, colorful blooms. Rembrandt tulips are related to the Darwins and are grown for their vivid stripes and blotches caused by a nonpathogenic virus.

Late season Darwins are perhaps the most popular of tulip varieties. Colors range from pure white to almost black. Tall cottage tulips with their 3 foot stems and delicate looking lily-like flowers are also late bloomers. An interesting subdivision of the cottage tulips are the viridiflora, distinctive because of their bright green flares dividing the center of each petal.

Except for the species, tulips are not notably long lived plants and in formal beds they are best treated as annuals and discarded or placed in a less conspicuous spot after bloom. The bulbs break down into smaller bulblets and the flower size is reduced after a year or two. Varieties touted as perennial are usually jumbo Darwin hybrids and will provide you with 3 or 4 seasons of top quality blooms although I have had some coming back for 15 years now.

Some of these tulips planted 15 years ago still come back each spring. Photo by dmp, 2006

Plant tulips shortly after purchasing in the fall to ensure good root establishment. Planting at 8 to 10 inch depths is said to prolong the life of the bulbs. Tulips look best planted en masse so use at least a dozen of each color and limit yourself to 2 or 3 colors per bed for a nice effect. Underplanting with pansies, alyssum, or low growing spring flowering perennials like rockcress or silver mound artemesia will help camouflage the dying tulip foliage.

For a real treat to the senses, visit Wicked Tulip Flower Farms (www.wickedtulips.com) in Exeter, RI or Bantam, CT. Walk through their acres of tulips, pick your own bouquet or order online for curbside pickup. Regardless of where you are or traveling to, be on the look out for vibrant, colorful tulips to bring some cheer into your spring and brighten our year to come.

Wicked Tulips Flower Farm, Photo by dmp 2019

Happy spring!

Dawn P.