Not quite Tulip time, you say? True, if you mean the classic garden varieties that come in every paintbox color, the ones we see massed at Longwood and Keukenhof, gorgeous, lavish and eyepopping in their thousands. May is their month, here in the Hudson Valley.
But I'm talking about their wild and wonderful cousins, the species or botanical Tulips. Their time is now, blooming along with Daffodils, Hellebores, Forsythias and the other things that make the first big splash of spring color. These are the Tulips that get banished to the back pages of the bulb catalogs, with other "little bulbs" that apparently never sell very well. It's a damn shame, because in this group are some of the most arresting and rewarding of all bulbous plants we can grow here in the temperate north.
Their struggle to be appreciated in comparison with their showier cousins is longstanding... one of the great grande dames of American gardening, Louise Beebe Wilder, wrote in 1923 "To some of us who know them the wild Tulips of Central Asia, of Italy, of North Africa and elsewhere, so diverse in form, so sprightly and unspoiled, are more interesting and alluring than the splendid border forms."
I've tried quite a few of these over the years, most with some success, and several have become reliably perennial in my garden. It pays to remember that most of them come from parts of the old world that have brief, cool, wet springs followed by hot, dry summers and cold winters. Good drainage in our climate is essential or they will rot, so I find my terraced beds and our sandy loam suits many of them very well. And they like to be left alone, as Ms. Wilder writes, "in sheltered sunny corners where they will be safe from molestation by misguided zeal." There's plenty of misguided zeal in my garden, but the species Tulips survive and thrive nonetheless.
These are Tulips for gardeners who don't particularly like Tulips... by which I mean, they find the modern hybrids perhaps too formal, too stiff, and altogether too much trouble to replant every year. The species Tulips have both the grace of wildflowers and the brilliant colors, so welcome in spring, of their hybrid descendants. Plus they tend to be much more perennial. I don't know the name of the beautifully marked pale yellow in the photo above (it came here as part of a mixed bag) but it's bloomed reliably for the last six or seven years, its clump increasing slowly but surely.
Tulipa praestans is another easy one that's available in a few nice cultivars like 'Fuselier' (above), an intense poppy red. I also grow 'Moondance', a bright orange (below) and 'Shogun' in softer shades of saffron and melon. All of them, like many species Tulips, throw multiple flowers from one bulb, an added color bonus.
'Moondance' must get its name from the cool, sinuous budding growth, because when the flowers open they're a very strong orange on the inside of the cup.
For a softer color scheme, Tulipa batalinii 'Bronze Charm' is certainly charming. I haven't grown it in a few years, but I had it at my old house where it was reliable in a raised bed with good drainage, sunny in early spring but partly shaded during the summer. Think I'll try it again.
I love the colors of emerging perennial foliage, and this variegated Iris is the perfect companion for this little yellow species Tulip. I can't remember whether this is Tulipa tarda or Tulipa dasystemon, and some sources list them as the same thing. No matter what name you get them under, just get them because they are easy, perennial and as cheerful as a sunny-side-up breakfast.
The Lady Tulips, Tulipa clusiana cultivars, have a very old pedigree in western gardens, having been brought to Florence from the Near East in 1606. They are charming, especially in their slender pointed bud stage that on sunny days opens to reveal a dark central blotch. They spread by stolons to form a colony when they're happy and have naturalized in parts of Spain and southern France. Good varieties are available here from most bulb merchants: 'Cynthia', 'Lady Jane', 'Tinka', and 'Tubergen's Gem', all worth a try.
I'm going in mostly for warm shades in the areas where I grow my species Tulips, so don't have many in the pink or purple range, but there are some really gorgeous kinds in that color palette. 'Persian Pearl' (above) is one such, a variety of Tulipa humilis in jewel tones of magenta and deep yellow, the outer petals flushed with silver-grey.
Tulipa bakeri 'Lilac Wonder' is another in that part of the color wheel, but softer and sweeter with lilac pink petals opening to reveal a golden yellow blotch. Easy and prolific, a good one for newbies.
I can't get enough of this little one... it's Tulipa orphanidea subspecies whittalii (sorry folks, no common name). Which is indeed a mouthful for such a little flower. But it packs a substantial color punch, with burnt orange petals that are accented by black and olive markings on the inside of the cup. Really cute coming up through low-growing perennials like Sedums or Creeping Phlox, and reliably perennial for me in my terraced beds that drain well and bake in the summertime.
Lastly, my very favorite that I've grown (so far)... the Woodland Tulip, Tulipa sylvestris. Very happy here on a sandy loam bank in part shade, among Forget-Me-Nots, Epimediums, Crested Iris, Japanese Woodland Peonies and other like-minded companions. This one truly has the bearing of a wildflower with its slightly nodding flowers that move in the breeze. It's a very adaptable species, ranging naturally all the way from Portugal and North Africa, through the Near East and into parts of China.
One more reason to try these: they're relatively cheap to buy... 25 bulbs will typically run under $10, so you can afford to plant in quantity and experiment. Success is not assured, but likely, if you can provide their minimal requirements... all of them will bloom the first season and with a little luck some of them will find that your garden suits them very well, and remain permanent residents.
The few I've profiled here are only the ones with which I have some familiarity. There are many, many others that are available from the popular bulb merchants and, with a little searching, from specialist growers. If you want a real treat, take a minute to look at the slide show at tulipsinthewild.com. Breathtaking photographs of Tulips in their native settings, with an interactive map showing their distribution.
Easy, prolific, inexpensive, colorful and fascinating... with so many things going for them it's hard to understand why more gardeners don't give these wonderful little bulbs a try. Maybe you'll be prompted to order a few this fall and, next spring, you'll see why I'm so enthusiastic about growing them.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.